By RICHARD RISEMBERG
Some of the points Adam B. Summers made in his op-ed of Nov. 26 ("It's Time to Stop California's Plans for High-Speed Rail") deserve rebuttal.
First, let us disabuse ourselves of the notion that personal automobile travel is not subsidized. According to the numbers crunchers at the Office of Technology Assessment, in a recent study year, "Motor vehicle users paid for 62-72 percent of public expenditures for highway infrastructure and services...." The remainder is basically subsidized.
For added perspective: In recent years, trucks and cars received $60 billion in federal subsidies; airlines, $30 billion; the Amtrak "boondoggle," only half a billion dollars.
All travel, outside of tramping along a trail with a rock in your hand looking for a rabbit to kill, is a social act partly funded out of the common wealth by common consent.
Now, let us look at Los Angeles' own Blue Line, with the cost overruns that Summers derided (while never mentioning cost overruns of road projects, of course). I ride trains in Los Angeles. The salient fact I notice about the Blue Line is that it's hard to get a seat on it any time of the day or night. In fact, the Blue Line, right here at Ground Zero of Carmageddon, is the most heavily used light-rail line in the United States. (Heavy-rail subways get more use in some cities.)
This means one or all of the following:
- People are riding it who were driving cars before, thus lessening the demand for expensive road-building and reducing pollution and congestion.
- People are traveling who were not traveling before. The Blue Line is heavily used by folks coming downtown to shop, thus supporting L.A.'s businesses and increasing tax receipts for the city.
- The Blue Line is giving the poorer people of South Los Angeles easy access to jobs and education without requiring them further to impoverish themselves by buying and maintaining cars.
I'd say that with those benefits, the cost could have tripled and been worth it.
Now, how about high-speed rail?
Well, it started in Japan in 1964, and has grown by leaps and bounds since then, with France, Germany, and now China building high-speed rail systems that are heavily utilized. Japan is a good comparison, since it faces intercity transport challenges almost identical to California's: a population dispersed along a coastline in one megacity and several smaller ones; active earthquake faults; and similar distances to cover.
Japanese bullet trains make a profit. They also compete effectively with the local airlines and private railways. During peak travel hours, loaded bullet trains leave every platform at ten-minute intervals. There have been no fatal accidents involving a bullet train in Japan since 1964.
As for efficiency, let me quote my earlier op-ed for the Business Journal: "In Tokyo, a single train and subway hub, Shinjuku, moves 4 million persons a day with no pollution, no parking required, no massive freeways slicing up the community." The station covers about one city block, and is surrounded with bustling commercial spaces and quiet residential alleys.
Los Angeles International Airport, on the other hand, with its 3,500-acre sprawl, averages just 165,000 boardings per day, and is the second-largest industrial source of air pollution in the county.
Rail is energy efficient: the most efficient powered form of transport in existence. High-speed rail is somewhat less efficient than standard rail, but still far more efficient than driving or flying the same distances, and its speed makes it competitive with air.
Yes, as Summers pointed out, the plane to San Francisco takes only one hour, not two and a half but that's from terminal to terminal. You have to get to and from the airports, which takes much longer than the flight does, in my experience. The train drops you off in town, right near where you need to go. Unless your hobby is staying in airport hotels.
High-speed rail in California would reduce the need to drive to distant airports (we're still thinking of putting one in Palmdale), and would eliminate the need to drive between the cities served. This would not only improve daily life, but would reduce our dependence on foreign oil producers.
High-speed rail is a mature, proven, and yet still evolving technology, and one that will dominate medium-distance travel from the near future on. High-speed rail, along with other rail options, can help bring about cities that are more efficient, more satisfying to live in, cleaner, and more profitable for those who work in them.
This is something the Japanese and the Europeans have known for 40 years, and it is now helping them to accelerate their economies ahead of ours. How much further do we wish to fall behind?
Richard Risemberg is co-editor of the urban sustainability Webzine "The New Colonist," publisher and editor of bike commuter Webzine "Bicycle Fixation," and owner of a small business that designs and manufactures clothing for bicycle commuters. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
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