In summary

Delays and rising costs have given high-speed rail critics an opening, but proponents say that abandoning this crucial project now would be a mistake.

Guest Commentary written by

Robert Cruickshank

Robert Cruickshank

Robert Cruickshank was president of Californians For High Speed Rail from 2009-11.

Sixty years ago, construction workers in the San Joaquin Valley began two major infrastructure projects that did much to build modern California: the State Water Project and Interstate 5. Backed by strong support in Sacramento, including adequate funding, the freeway connected drivers to Los Angeles in 1972, and the aqueduct began delivering water to Southern California in 1973.

Today another major infrastructure project rises in the San Joaquin Valley. The high-speed rail project is as essential to 21st-century California as the aqueducts and interstates were to the 20th century, enabling fast travel powered by clean energy to some of the state’s most populated places. Countries around the world have built or expanded their high-speed rail systems in recent years, carrying large numbers of passengers and reducing the need for carbon-intensive travel by airplanes or cars.

Unfortunately, California’s high-speed rail project has struggled. Unlike the aqueduct or the interstate, high-speed rail has never enjoyed more than tepid support in the state Capitol, even as it maintains majority support among California voters. The lack of legislative support means the project has never been fully funded. It has been trapped in a morass of land use regulations and lawsuits from project opponents that delayed construction and helped drive up costs.

Delays and rising costs have given an opening for critics to try and defund it, even if it means leaving unfinished infrastructure in the San Joaquin Valley. Some critics claim that the problem was a route serving cities like Fresno and Palmdale rather than a more direct path between San Francisco and L.A. 

Even if one overlooked the millions of potential riders in those cities, any alternative route chosen would still lack sufficient funding and would still have been subject to environmental lawsuits. 

Still, it would be a mistake to abandon this crucial project now, leaving concrete guideways in the sky empty of tracks, trains and travelers. No other form of transportation works as efficiently at connecting people across the distances of the Golden State as high-speed rail. Airplanes may make the trip from gate to gate in an hour. But when you add in travel times to and from the airport, a trip from downtown LA to downtown SF takes roughly the same amount of time on a bullet train as on a plane – yet the plane spews far more carbon.

Driving is simply not competitive. Without traffic, it takes 5-6 hours to drive from L.A. to SF. With traffic, it can take a lot longer. I remember a New Year’s Day drive from L.A. to Berkeley that took 10 hours in the early 2000s. Even if Californians switch en masse to electric vehicles, it will still take most of the day to drive from the Bay Area to Southern California. And that’s without the comforts of a train – the ability to stand up, walk around, get food, use the bathroom and work remotely.

Global experience has proven that if you build it, they will ride. High-speed rail systems connecting cities of 500 miles’ distance or less typically grab a majority of the market share on that route away from airlines. That includes Amtrak’s Acela train connecting Washington, D.C. and New York City.

The evidence is clear that California should finish the job and complete the high-speed rail service between SF and L.A. Yes, the cost has increased but the project remains more affordable than expanding airports or freeways. Its carbon emissions reductions will be essential to achieving the state’s climate goals. 

Neither the State Water Project nor the interstates were cheap. But they proved their value many times over during the last five decades. California’s high-speed rail project will prove its value many times over during the rest of this century – if political leaders in Sacramento commit to its completion.

The high-speed rail project is one of the largest and most ambitious undertakings in California history. Critics argue that the rising costs outweigh the project’s benefits, and the funds could be better spent on critical issues, such as the state’s water crisis.

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