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

January 14, 2012|By Fred Smoller

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.

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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.

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