A high-speed rail system that wouldn’t serve Californians

The Times’ Feb. 28 article, “Some fear California’s high-speed rail won’t deliver on early promises,” reports that the system’s cost projections have been underestimated and the ridership projections overestimated. The plans for the state’s high-speed trains are indeed on the wrong track, but for a far more fundamental reason: The planned system, which would connect the far-flung regions of Northern and Southern California, wouldn’t serve our actual needs. This is precisely why the ridership would be low.

To the contrary, high-speed trains are needed, and they will be successful in attracting high ridership, if the trains would serve urban areas, where millions of people live and work.

It may be an attractive idea to have high-speed trains running from San Diego to San Francisco, but they wouldn’t help the vast majority of Californians who drive to work, school and other destinations within 100 miles of their homes. Commuters need to get to work, get their kids to school, transport goods, provide services and get themselves to entertainment venues quickly and conveniently. Businesses need to transport goods, receive customers and provide services quickly and at low cost.

Easing congestion, like all problems, should be approached by first asking ourselves this: What is the goal we are trying to achieve? The primary goal for transportation projects in California should be to get the highest number of people to work, school and other destinations quickly, dependably, frequently and cheaply. This goal can be met if high-speed rail projects are focused on urban areas where people live, work, go to school and go out for entertainment. Successful rail projects in the San Francisco Bay Area, on the East Coast, in Europe, Japan and elsewhere get millions of people where they want to go quickly and more conveniently than they would in a car. The trains depart and arrive frequently and on time, and they require minimal transfers from one train to another.

Trains connecting Northern and Southern California wouldn’t achieve the goal of getting large numbers of people to work, school and other local destinations. In other words, they wouldn’t meet our primary goal and wouldn’t serve our most crucial needs. We need high-speed rail, but we need it in major cities and their outlying areas. The state should redirect the billions of dollars in bond and federal money to rail projects in urban areas and to projects that connect outlying communities to major urban areas. The money should be directed to regional governments who should use it to expand Metrolink, BART and similar rail systems, and provide high-speed rail connections from outlying communities up to 100 miles away to the state’s major cities.

Elihu Gevirtz is a biologist and land-use consultant living in Santa Barbara.