Philbrick: High-speed rail is a sustainable way to connect California
Grade separation for the California high-speed rail project at Excelsior Avenue near State Route 43 in Kings County. Photo courtesy of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

    High-speed rail boasts the potential to connect Californians faster than any other mode of ground transport, create a multitude of jobs in high-cost cities and increase economic activity—all while expanding sustainable transportation choices and reducing emissions.

    Transportation is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, over 90% of the fuel used for transportation is petroleum-based—gasoline and diesel—and much of this fuel is used in the personal vehicles many Americans must rely on to get to and from work.

    In fact, in 2019 the average American commuter wasted 54 extra hours a year in traffic delays—“extra hours” meaning the extra time spent traveling at congested speeds rather than at the speed limit. More specifically, commuters in Bay Area cities wasted 103 hours sitting in traffic that same year. At the same time, the number of climate-related disasters has tripled in the last 30 years, in part driven by human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

    The Net Zero Game Changers Initiative, a White House interagency working group, recently identified high-speed rail as one of 37 “game-changing” opportunities that will empower the U.S. to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. As U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said in October, “It makes no sense to me why Americans should settle for a standard of speed and convenience on the rails that’s inferior to what a citizen could expect if they live in Germany, or Japan, or Italy, or even Turkey, or Morocco. We should have the best in America when it comes to any form of infrastructure.”

    Many European and Asian countries are ahead of the United States when it comes to building high-speed rail systems. Commuters in France, for example, are paying as little as the equivalent of $11 to zip at 200 mph across the country—all while getting some work done or sipping a cup of coffee. Instead of spending countless dollars and hours upon hours on highways because of a reliance on fossil-fueled, single-occupancy personal vehicles.

    Although the California high-speed rail project faced initial setbacks, it has already brought a multitude of benefits to the region and state, and has the potential to address some of our most pressing problems.

    For example, data shows that living in the Bay Area necessitates working threeor more, depending on the city—full-time jobs at the state’s minimum wage. Rising costs of living mean well-paying jobs are becoming even more valuable and cities are sprawling to create more affordable housing. The Central Valley is expanding, and the high-speed rail route passes right through it in order to affordably connect people to where they need to be.

    Since the start of construction, the California high-speed rail project has created nearly 9,000 construction jobs, a majority of which go directly to Central Valley residents. There are currently 171 miles under development in the Central Valley, with more than 30 active construction sites. More infrastructure development means more jobs for Californians.

    Road traffic comes with more risks than wasted hours spent in traffic congestion. According to an analysis from the National Safety Council, motor vehicle fatalities rose by 9% in 2021 with 4,161 motor vehicle deaths in California that year alone. Other modes of transport, in contrast, have much lower fatality rates.

    In fact, the Japanese high-speed rail system, which has been operating for decades, is well-known for its nearly flawless safety record, which includes zero passenger fatalities in its more than 50-year history. Implementing better passenger rail systems and advocating for the use of public transportation, including high-speed rail, is a major step in the right direction to achieving zero road fatalities in California.

    After years of stalemates and obstacles, high-speed rail in California is moving forward with the prospect of trains entering service by the end of the decade. In June, the state Legislature allocated $4.2 billion towards completion of an initial operating segment for California’s “Bay to Basin” high-speed rail network in the Central Valley, marking an end of political bargaining and uncertainty. And despite negative media attention, polling results from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies shows 56% of voters in California want to continue building the high-speed rail project.

    High-speed rail is part of our sustainable, efficient and safe transportation future that will connect communities in California and across the nation.

    San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues.

    Comment Policy (updated 11/1/2021): We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by administrators.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published.