The San Diego Union-Tribune
BY LYNN SCHENK
SUNDAY, APRIL 3, 2011 AT MIDNIGHT
It’s not a question of whether we can afford high-speed rail in California, it’s a question of whether we can afford not to have it – especially in San Diego.
In the late 1980s, San Diego was looking for a new airport site. As a San Diego port commissioner then, I advocated that high speed rail could be the right alternative. Earlier this year, this newspaper acknowledged San Diego International Airport’s “seam-busting future.” Planners see little potential for San Diego County’s 12 public airports to help alleviate capacity problems, but great potential for high-speed rail to do so. The five top destinations for San Diego travelers are within California – and most of them are along the proposed high-speed rail route.
Planners project that a quarter of San Diego County residents and visitors would switch to high-speed rail for trips to Northern California. San Diego International Airport is expected to reach capacity between 2025 and 2030 – just as high-speed trains are expected to start operating this far south.
In short, we need this system. Some trends are not in dispute. We know that California is growing with estimates of 50 million people by 2030. Those 50 million people – and the goods they need – will have to move around our state.
Meantime, our transportation infrastructure is barely serving our current population.
Californians will not bear the costs of this $43 billion project alone. We did our part in 2008 with the passage of Proposition 1A, a $9.95 billion bond measure. Beyond that, California already has received more federal funding for high speed rail than any other state, $3.6 billion, and we stand an excellent chance to receive more within the next few months. Additionally, the Obama administration has announced a plan to dedicate $53 billion more to high-speed rail over the next six years.
These are significant steps and they are exactly the signals the private sector needs to become involved. For years, companies have been telling the California High-Speed Rail Authority directly that they want to be part of our project because they expect it to not only be viable, but also profitable.
A recent call by the authority for expressions of interest gave the private sector – from the self-employed entrepreneur to the multinational corporation – a chance to submit their intentions in writing. Responses were voluntary and not a required part of the bidding process. We received 1,100 responses in five weeks. Virgin Rail Group was one: “This is an opportunity to which VRG is prepared to commit substantial resources to. We believe that California is a market very well-suited to high-speed rail.” Skanska USA was another: “We are excited for the opportunity to participate on such a monumental project.”
The procurement process is expected to begin late this year and work on the initial segment – 120 miles through the Central Valley – late next year. That segment will form the backbone of a system running from Sacramento to San Diego.
The 1,100 responses suggest we need not fear a shortage of private investment because private investors do not fear a shortage of riders.
We are updating our business plan with estimates of ridership that will take into account variables, including fuel costs, airline reactions, train schedules and more. Now that the project is taking clearer shape, early estimates of ridership will shift – as expected. No credible expert has ever said California’s ridership numbers are wrong; our experts say they’re reasonable – but the public has a right to be confident in those figures. A few months ago a peer review panel of experts from California and around the world looked at our ridership estimates. They found not incorrect conclusions, but that the firm we used didn’t document the process as fully as it could have. That is being fixed now.
The key point is that ridership models are just that – models. We can ask people hypothetical questions about their willingness to ride, but common sense and the experience of other nations tell us that when it is built, people will use it.
Californians have demonstrated their support for this project repeatedly. We have the will and the support from corporate boardrooms to the White House to make it a reality.
Schenk, an attorney, has served on the California High-Speed Rail Authority board since 2003. She was the first woman elected to Congress to represent a San Diego district.