Community Commentary: There's an affordable alternative to the bullet train

California's High Speed Rail (HSR) is dead or nearly so.

Virtually everyone has concluded that there are more important spending priorities. The cost of building the train has more than doubled from $42 billion to $98 billion and a recent report by a group of rail experts recommends that the Legislature not authorize bond funding for the project.

Other scathing analyses have shot holes in HSR's ridership and revenue projections. The way the project is being managed has been attacked. Voters also want a do-over of their 2008 vote for Proposition 1A, which provided the startup money for the bullet train, according to a December 2011 Field poll.

Nevertheless, it is important not to turn our back on rail. Gas prices have already begun to shoot up as the economy begins to recover. As the recovery gains traction, increased domestic and worldwide demand for oil will drive the cost up to more than $5 per gallon. Higher gas prices are known to increase rail boardings. Also, rail helps relieve traffic congestion and suburban sprawl. Finally, rail projects create much-needed jobs.

Rather than build a statewide high speed rail network, we need to make existing regional commuter trains work better. Here's how:

Currently, three separate operators run trains between San Diego and Los Angeles — Amtrak, Metrolink and the "Coaster." The result is a mish-mash of schedules and fares and unnecessary overhead. Wouldn't it be better to have one train that ran between San Diego and Los Angeles every half hour? A train you could actually count on to take you to and from work, entertainment and shopping venues and a Padres or a Dodger game wherever you lived in Southern California — one that was reliable and inexpensive, provided connections to the regions' airports and that was run by a single agency — as opposed to three?

Tri-Rail, Florida's south coast commuter rail line, provides a good model. This is a conventional commuter train propelled by a diesel-electric locomotive. It moves along swiftly, reaching 80 mph in some parts. The entire route is 71 miles. By 2014 it will be expanded to 85. The train is connected to three airports — Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach — with free and fast shuttles, and to Miami's light rail system. It is also fully integrated into the regions' bus system.

The train isn't flashy, but it gets the job done. It runs on bio-diesel, is reliable, reasonably comfortable and affordable at about $10 a ticket for a one-way fare for the 71-mile trip. Monthly passes and discounts for students and seniors reduce the price further.

Most importantly, 50 trains run each day — 25 in each direction — during the week, one every 30 minutes each weekday. The stations look terrific, and you can take a bicycle on the train.

With each passing year, service has been improved. Tracks have been added and upgraded. New train stations have been built, and older stations have been renovated. Grade crossings have been modernized and eliminated. As a result, ridership has doubled since 2000.

If Florida's Tri-Rail can run a commuter train through three counties (Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach), why can't we (through Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego)?

Rail policymakers should give serious consideration to merging the San Diego Coaster into Metrolink, which already serves five counties (Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino). In addition, Amtrak service should be replaced with Metrolink express trains.

The savings from reduced overhead combined with a fraction of the $100 billion that it will cost to build high speed rail should be put into local trains. These improvements would include upgrading and increasing existing tracks, purchasing additional train sets, eliminating grade crossings and other improvements which will result in shorter trips. These changes will bring us many of the benefits of rail but at substantially lower cost and much sooner. With a culture of rail in place, we can then revisit the statewide bullet train.

FRED SMOLLER is a professor in the masters of public administration program at Brandman University in Irvine.

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