How viable is high-speed rail in California?

An artist's rendering of the high-speed rail project in California.

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Kai Ryssdal: If you're uncomfortable with the idea of being stuck 35,000 feet in the air, inside a skinny aluminum tube with engines hanging off it, you do have some choices. Cars, obviously. For longer distances, there are buses and trains. Amtrak's got its Acela high-speed rail service in the Northeast Corridor. But if high-speed rail's going to happen on a bigger scale, it's going to be in California. Two years ago, voters approved a $10 billion bond measure to fund a train that can zip people from L.A. to San Francisco in just two-and-a-half hours.

From KALW in San Francisco, Casey Miner wraps up our series on the Future of Transportation.


Casey Miner: When Bob Doty stands in the commuter train station in downtown San Francisco, he doesn't have any trouble imagining high-speed rail.

Bob Doty: We have this golden opportunity in our little golden state.

Doty's an engineer with the California High-Speed Rail Authority. To him, the project's benefits are obvious.

Doty: Riding on that train, right behind you right now, is 30 times safer than driving that automobile right over here to the side. Thirty times. Why we don't do everything we can in the United States to put people on rail is sort of crazy.

That's not how Pat Burt sees it. He's the mayor of Palo Alto, about 30 miles down the line from San Francisco. It's a college town -- leafy streets, local businesses. When Burt stands at the city's downtown train station, he doesn't have any trouble imagining the train coming through. It's just that he doesn't like what he sees: A big, noisy eyesore.

Pat Burt: This would be, in a worst-case scenario, an elevated structure. So the entire thing would be over 50 feet in the air, racing through the center of the city at 125 miles an hour with a train every few minutes.

Palo Alto is one of three cities south of San Francisco that are suing the state's rail authority to keep the train out. And they're right that it's hard to build a fast train through a densely populated area. At top speed, California's trains are supposed to go 220 miles an hour. And that's only possible in the rural middle of the state.

Jeffrey Barker: Obviously, the Central Valley is where California's system will be true high-speed rail. It's where it will hit the highest speeds.

Jeffrey Barker is a spokesman for the rail authority. The federal government gave them $4.3 billion to build the first segment of the line. But they can't build just anywhere: The feds said they have to start in the Central Valley. Compared to the density of San Francisco and Los Angeles, it's the middle of nowhere. But Barker says that's not a bad thing.

Barker: It's where there will be entirely new infrastructure. And that's key in the near term obviously, because it means a tremendous amount of job creation and work on the ground.

So the first segment will be the easiest to build, and it will let officials showcase what their train can do. But unless the state finds the money to build the other segments, it won't actually get anyone anywhere.

Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt says that proves the project is a waste of money.

Pat Burt: If we were as voters promised a high-speed rail system, but instead we have a train system that goes back and forth between Fresno and Bakersfield. Is that what we were promised?

Pat Burt's just one guy. But his skepticism? That's something a lot of people share. Republican wins in last week's elections are already calling the future of rail into question. California has a shot at proving how great the trains can be, but it's going to be a while.

Jeffrey Barker of the high-speed rail authority says they're not even going to buy train cars until at least 2015, never mind run them.

Barker: It wouldn't be until about 2017 -- on this kind of hypothetical, optimistic timeline -- that we would actually run service.

With that kind of timeline, one of the project's biggest challenges is going to be keeping taxpayers motivated. Brian Stanke is executive director of Californians for High-Speed Rail, an advocacy group.

Brian Stanke: The voters of California didn't say, build a quarter of a project and make it the best quarter of a project you can. They voted to build the whole project. We need to plan to build the system out, not plan to build half the system and then stop.

Building the train is risky. If people think it's a waste of money, they won't want to give it more money -- which means it will end up being a waste of money. Either way, that high-speed ride is still close to a decade away.

In San Francisco, I'm Casey Miner for Marketplace.


Ryssdal: Casey's piece and the rest of the series came to us from the public radio project Transportation Nation.

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