What if high-speed rail went through the Altamont Pass a teeny bit, and then stopped?
Sounds silly at first blush, but you have to bear with me here.
I heard about this at Wednesday’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission meeting, when a speaker critical of the area’s first comprehensive regional rail plan noted that Scott Haggerty, an Alameda County Supervisor who represents the county on the commission, had his own high-speed rail plan.
One could say, and one would be very sensible to do so, that the time for proposing new bullet train routes has passed. The California High-Speed Rail Authority is in the throes of an environmental impact process pitting the 100-percent Altamont Pass option against the Pacheco Pass options. The routes have been debated for years, the authority is getting a fifth of what it asked for in the state budget and a lack of resolve at this point might be akin to being the lame wildebeest as the lions are closing in.
But sometimes a wildebeest has to zig when the lions expect it to zag.
The odds of California voters, their elected representatives and the private sector agreeing to come up with the initial estimate of around $40 billion seem somewhat slim. As the Sacramento Bee opined this week, bullet trains are a great idea, but there are more immediate infrastructure needs we already can’t pay for.
Why is it so expensive? I’m not a PhD, but it seems that high-speed rail is trying to be all things to all people.
At its core, it’s a viable way to get to Southern California that would be fast enough to compete with the airlines (2 1/2 hours from downtown San Francisco to downtown LA, with little of that waiting you do at the airport) and cheap and convenient enough to compete with the freeways.
But it would be oh, so much more, at least in the minds of the rag-tag coalition trying to promote it.
It couldn’t go straight to Los Angeles. The authority has it going though the Antelope Valley, promising to turn that remote locale into a bustling suburb of Los Angeles.
It would, if a coalition of Santa Clara County and San Francisco officials continues to hold sway, perform a similar conversion for the rural areas around the Pacheco Pass. If you don’t already own a patch of land down there, strike now while the bullet gravy train has nearly ground to a halt.
If the Altamont Pass backers in the East Bay and Central Valley get their way, high-speed rail will be more things to more people.
It will be a posh commuter train, allowing people who can’t afford private jets to fly to Oakland or San Francisco in the time it now takes to drive from one end of Pleasanton to the other in Interstate 580 during rush hour.
And if the Central Valley isn’t growing fast enough, the bullet train will be an engine of commerce like no other. At one end, it would enable people to commute to Los Angeles. At the other end, it would make it feasible for people to work in San Jose and live in Fresno.
But those people dancing around this golden cash calf have made the transportation gods angry. The project is so intimidating that fewer and fewer people are taking it seriously.
We don’t need to put a man on the moon here. We just need to get to LA.
Why not just build a line where it will do the most good — down the Central Valley and over the mountains into LA?
It doesn’t have to start in downtown San Francisco. It just has to cut the time it takes to get from the Bay Area to Southern California from the current 11 or 12 hours that Amtrak’s run-down Coast Starlight takes to, say, four hours.
Two hours by improved regular trains out to or near the Central Valley, then another two hours to LA. I know I’d use it if it meant it would be faster than driving and didn’t involve operating a vehicle for six hours.
Heck, you could even build a vast parking lot for people who’d rather not change trains. They, too, would benefit from cutting short the longest part of their trip.
The idea floated by Haggerty dovetails nicely with my simplistic vision. He proposes building a “Grand Central Station” in Livermore, where people could transfer to high-speed rail from BART, the Altamont Commter Express commuter rail line or an as-yet-to-be-figured-out rail connection to eastern Contra Costa County.
He sees it as complementing a Pacheco Pass-San Jose-San Francisco bullet line, but I say, build your station, make that the gateway to the Bay Area.
Photo from www.japaneselifestyle.com.au.