Debate about California high speed rail continues

The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) started the California High-Speed Rail project after voters approved its funding in 2008. When complete, the project will consist of over 800 miles of track and up to 24 stations, in California cities such as San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Jose, San Diego, Bakersfield, Fresno, Palmdale, Anaheim, Riverside, and Irvine. Traveling from San Francisco to Los Angeles would take 2 hours and 40 minutes, and from Los Angeles to San Diego would take 1 hour and 20 minutes. High-Speed Rail remains controversial, however. Proponents point to economic, environmental, and community benefits from the project, whereas opponents of the plan argue that it would be detrimental to all three. Despite initial excitement for this project, many cities claim that they cannot afford to build high-speed rail. Fresno officials stated that they cannot afford to help build rails in San Joaquin Valley. There is a growing movement to stop the high-speed rail project in California.

On October 9th, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, introduced a bill that would freeze federal funding for the California high-speed rail project. The bill would stop the Obama administration from providing additional funding for the project but does not affect the $3.6 billion already spent on the project. This bill would freeze the $715 million that has not been officially “obligated” to the state. Although the CHSRA had estimated the project to cost $34 billion originally, the estimated cost has been recalculated to be $98.5 billion. Critics say that this estimate is low, and the authority admitted that it might go as high as $117.6 billion for Phase 1. If Phase 2 were included in the estimate, the total cost would be around $180 billion. Despite public’s initial excitement, the project’s newly estimated cost seems to make Californians uneasy.

Despite the costs, CHSRA argues that there would be economic benefits. According to CHSRA, it is estimated that the project would create up to 100,000 construction jobs during each year of construction. There is also the potential for 4,500 permanent jobs to be created as a direct result of the high speed rail system. However, as the economic downturn continues, economic opposition is mounting; challengers to the project argue that the state cannot afford such a luxury. McCarthy said, “Responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars is always important… We cannot afford to throw money we don’t have at a project most don’t have confidence in.”

Another issue is the environmental impact of the high-speed rail. Because renewable and sustainable energy sources can power the trains, high-speed rail holds the potential to reduce both our dependence on foreign oil and greenhouse gas emissions. However, energy for the trains will come from the state power grid, of which renewable energy sources currently compose only a very small percentage. In addition, the trains are significantly more energy efficient than airplanes and automobiles, which further emphasizes the project’s environmental benefits. Although the project promises environmental benefits with alternative energy sources, it also triggers many environmental concerns. First, many worry that the rail lines themselves will pollute vast stretches of farm and other undeveloped land. Second, given that some rails will disrupt animal habitats, animal migration patterns will be interrupted. It is also likely that animals would be run over by trains. The final concern involves the proposed alternative energy sources. Despite the proposal’s call for using alternative energy sources, it is more likely that the trains would use conventional energy sources, as it would be extremely costly to build and maintain alternative energy sources.

The final key issue is about the community. CHSRA argues that there are also community benefits to the high-speed rail; traveling would become cheaper, faster, and more convenient throughout California. This project has the potential to revitalize California. But opponents state that the trains would attract people to those cities with stations but not to the small cities. This would create an unbalanced state with a few cities prospering while others struggle to survive. For example, Route 66 was the source of community life for many towns. After highways were introduced, healthy towns near Route 66 turned into ghost towns.

In September 2010, 76% of Californians fully or somewhat supported the building of LA to San Francisco line. Only 13% fully opposed it. Now, the opposition has nearly quintupled to 62%. This shows a fast change in the minds of the people, which may be due to the worsening economy in California. Probolsky Research of Newport Beach, California conducted the recent survey. They report that “the more voters know about high-speed rail, the more they are likely to vote to stop the project.”

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