Saturday, March 26, 2011

Trains & the Central Valley

Continuing on the Merced theme I've had lately (maybe Merced themed blog is an untapped market), I thought I'd share a post Megan McArdle had earlier this week that rang kind of uncomfortably true to me. If you're too lazy to read it, basically she's pessimistic about the future of high speed rail in the United States...mostly because she is a libertarian and is contractually obligated to tell us that everything the government tries won't work, but also because there are some very legitimate reasons that it might not. Her point is that in the high density, developed areas that it's most feasible to take a train to and not need a car on the other end, it's nearly impossible to get the land needed to build new railroad tracks. And in the places where obtaining land and building tracks is less of a, say, the stretch of the Central Valley, including Merced, where they say the first portion of the California high speed rail system will be built...there's no clear demand, particularly because of the impediments to getting around in any given city once you get off the train.

Like I said, this rings kind of uncomfortably true to me. I can't remember if I actually voted for high speed rail funding when it was on the ballot...I think it's very likely that I did not, because it would have violated my "voting yes on propositions" principal, and I'm not really sure I can jump on the bandwagon of high speed rail being the solution to all our problems. High speed rail would be the solution to one problem: the amount of pollution created by business travelers ferrying between LA and the Bay Area every day on airplanes, but there are a lot of other problems that there are much simpler solutions to. A lot of traffic could be eliminated if people would just concede the importance of living close to where they work. For the people who really find it essential to live at one end of the Bay Area and work in another, fully funding Caltrain (or Bart) and expanding the number of shuttles going between the stations and major employment hubs would go a long way for a lot cheaper. And for routes where there is no existing rail system, there's really nothing wrong with buses. Honestly, I kind of wonder if a big part of the appeal of high speed rail as a political issue is that it lacks the stigma of other forms of public transportation. Buses are for poor people, high speed trains are for sophisticated international types. Like round-abouts.

All that being said though, I'd have to know a lot more about the economic dynamics of the Central Valley before I decided that a high speed rail system here would be useless. It's important to remember that the primary market for public transportation isn't wide-eyed idealists trying to reduce their carbon impact, but people for whom maintaining a car for each working member of the family in running condition takes up too much of their income. There isn't exactly a shortage of people on bikes around here...maybe a lot of them would happily bike to a train station here, and then bike to whatever job they could get two towns down the tracks. That'd depend a lot on the cost of tickets and the frequency of the trains though. And on whether there are actually better jobs the next town over than there are here. Quickly looking at Amtrak, right now it would take $17 and 35 minutes to get to Modesto, or $21 and just over an hour to get to Fresno from here (Modesto & Fresno being the nearest bigger cities). If high speed rail could be about half as expensive and twice as fast, I bet people would use it. Maybe. (I'm trying to look up predictions of what the fares will be with little luck...but it does seem like less than Amtrak is pretty likely)

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