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By Noel T. Braymer

As California along with the rest of the United States recovers from the COVID-19 epidemic. There are plenty of projects planned or underway to upgrade rail passenger service. A big example of this is the agreement to build High Speed Rail service by Virgin Trains USA between Victorville and Las Vegas to start service by 2023. This is seen as part one of a larger system. Already the plans call for extending HSR service south of Victorville along the I-15 freeway to Rancho Cucamonga. What’s at Rancho Cucamonga? It’s a Metrolink Station on the San Bernardino Line between Los Angeles and San Bernardo. With connecting service from Metrolink, passengers from many places in Southern California would be able to travel to Las Vegas without getting stuck in traffic. Also long planned is the construction of a rail connection between Victorville and Palmdale. Long range plans call for High Speed Rail service extended from Los Angeles to the Bay Area . At Palmdale passengers could connect to the Virgin Trains USA to or from Las Vegas with Metrolink service.  Much of the financing for this service comes from California State Bonds paid for by Virgin Trains USA. Also the lease agreements for use of the I-15 median with the State of California for the rail right of way both saves Virgin Trains money and simplifies construction.

While the California High Speed Rail Project has often been declared dead, work is still ongoing. Current planning calls for 171 miles of High Speed Rail service between Bakersfield and Merced by 2027. Despite the critics, much of the work on the current 119 miles of construction is now well underway, A major factor in the San Joaquin Valley for this project are up to 4,000 jobs created in the San Joaquin Valley in an area with high levels of unemployment. Like any complex project being built for the first time, there has been a steep learning curve in building HSR in the San Joaquin Valley. Many of the problems with the project stem from business as usual by the army of consultants that came with  the start of this project. Recently Governor Newsom reorganized the project and is turning over the work from the consultants (who charge the State for their work) over to State Employees, many of whom are Engineers. Soon it will be time to start laying tracks and installing signalling on the nearly finished 119 miles of right of way between Madera and Wasco.

One person’s Boondoggle is another’s infrastructure improvement. Much is written in newspapers about what a boondoggle rail projects are. But many of the forces which oppose rail service support new road construction, even as existing roads are badly in need of repair. The following  is a quote from the Frontier Group website- “America’s aging roads and bridges need fixing. Our car-dependent transportation system is dangerous, harms our communities, and is the nation’s leading source of global warming pollution. And more than ever before, it is clear that America needs to invest in giving people healthier, more sustainable transportation options.
Yet year after year, state and local governments propose billions of dollars’ worth of new and expanded highways that often do little to reduce congestion or address real transportation challenges, while diverting scarce funding from infrastructure repairs and key transportation priorities. Highway Boondoggles 5 finds nine new budget-eating highway projects slated to cost a total of $25 billion that will harm communities and the environment, while likely failing to achieve meaningful transportation goals. Highway expansion costs transportation agencies billions of dollars, driving them further into debt, while failing to address our long-term transportation challenges.” What has been found is when major roads are built or expanded, the results cause more traffic congestion, not less.

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NCTD Coaster Train at the downtown San Diego train station. Expanded rail service drive new development. Photo by Noel T. Braymer

This push to build new major roads mostly with debt reminds me of the world wide push to build Toll Roads from recent history. The promise was that local communities would “make money” from Toll Roads which were highly promoted by international companies which proposed to build them. But rarely do such toll roads make a profit. Often in these contracts if the toll road fails to be profitable, the local government agency was held responsible for paying for the new Toll Roads. While the local authority received  income from the new toll road. It was rarely enough to pay down the debt incurred from construction.

What is needed are better connections between transportation services. This is common in many places overseas. Planning is ongoing in California to run services which run at the same time every hour with connecting services for quick and easy transfers to many destinations. Ideally services should be run at least every half hour with connections at every station stop. By running trains at the same time of day this makes it possible to run more trains on time with fewer problems. With this will come joint ticketing. This will likely include ticketing on smart phones which will sell tickets to multiple destinations with transfers. Such service improvements would connect different rail services with bus services (local and intercity) and connections to airports. Hopefully we will see ridership return as the COVID-19 virus is controlled.

While Rail Passenger service is often blasted as being a waste of money. The reality is good passenger service creates wealth. This can often be seen as new developments spring up at or near train stations even here in California. This happens at Amtrak/Metrolink and Rail transit stations in California. As the COVID -19 virus is suppressed. More people will be drawn to places with good rail service. The same can’t be said for major shopping malls built near freeway. The big box stores are now going bankrupt at an alarming rate. Behind much of this are Hedge Funds which buy these stores on credit, but force the stores to pay back high debts to the Hedge Funds which is easy money for Hedge Funds. This is what happened to Toys R US and other Big Box stores