Oct 23, 2019

High-speed future

Illustration by Patrick Tran / The Collegian

Proposition 1A funds high-speed train through state

With the November election quickly approaching, Fresno State student voters will face a nearly $10 billion question on the ballot: Are they willing to spend their tax dollars on Proposition 1A’s high-speed rail bonds?

The state of California, according to the League of Women Voters, traditionally uses bonds to finance major infrastructure projects. These often include projects such as roads, schools and parks, which benefit taxpayers — including students — over time.

If passed, Proposition 1A would authorize $9.95 billion in bonds to begin construction on the first phase of a high-speed rail line. The high-speed passenger trains would eventually run between San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area, making stops in the central San Joaquin Valley, with further investments later. The proposed routes would also fork just south of Merced, with one route continuing to the Bay Area and the other going to Sacramento.

Proposition 1A has earned support from legislators like California Congressman Jim Costa and Assemblyman Juan Arambula. Some of the benefits hoped for include improving air quality by lowering the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by cars taken off the road, saving farmland over time by not having to expand freeway and highway widths, and boosting local economies with the related creation of jobs.

But with hard economic times, the proposition faces opposition. Critics question if the timing is right for such a costly bond project.

The price to pay back the $9.95 billion in bonds from Proposition 1A will actually cost taxpayers about $19.4 billion over a period of 30 years, according to the State Legislative Analyst.

One study, sponsored by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the Reason Foundation and Citizens Against Government Waste, found the full rail project would cost at least $40 billion to construct — far beyond the $9.95 billion that Proposition 1A would provide. The study “The California Rail Proposal: A Due Diligence Report”also suggests that rider usage would be significantly lower than proponents project.

“We think that numbers on estimated ridership are overly optimistic,” Eric Eisenhammer, legal assistant for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said in a phone interview. “We have seen estimates where they’re estimating more riders per mile than Japan gets, and [Japan’s] population is roughly three times as much as California.”

At a public forum Oct. 15 at Fresno State, Congressman Costa said that even though some people are concerned with costs associated with high-speed rail construction, the system is something that Californians need to invest in for the future.

“We’ve lived off the investments that our parents made and this is an investment for the future,” Costa said. “The government helped subsidize highways… The government helped subsidized airports. A rail system isn’t any different.”

Assemblyman Arambula also told the 40 to 50 people in attendance at the forum that voters need to look at Proposition 1A from a cost-benefit point of view. Arambula said that for every $1 paid, there would eventually be $2 put back into the economy.

Another concern given at the forum was people’s ability to adapt to changes in transportation. One attendee was concerned that people would be too used to driving their cars and wouldn’t be willing to make the change to using the high-speed rail.

Arambula said that he knew people would be able to change with time. He compared the situation to people using a house phone –and they probably now have just a cell phone, with the advancement of technology.

“If my father wanted to go somewhere, he used to travel by horse or donkey,” Arambula said. “Not everybody has always had a car.”

According to an Amtrak news release, 32 percent more people used Amtrak’s San Joaquin passenger service, in July 2008 than in July 2007. “Western corridor” trains, Amtrak said, have seen record ridership month after month in the past year. Also, rising gas prices have led people to try and find alternative modes of transportation, both to save money and to be more environmentally friendly.

Costa also pointed to Europe and Japan, stating how both areas have successful high speed-rail systems. Arambula pointed to Mexico, which is constructing a rail between its two most populated cities. Arambula said it would just be a matter of time until California embraces rail travel but sooner would be better than later.

But Eisenhammer thinks there are other problems to handle when it comes to regional transportation. He cited more congestion from people commuting to and from work locally. He said that there should be more focus and money spent on local transit instead of intra-city transportation.

“I think more people have problems getting to and from work,” Eisenhammer said. “Part of the problem is [that] the high-speed rail wouldn’t connect people from highly populated suburbs to the city.”

Costa, though, said at the forum that he expects the high-speed rail system to connect people to different parts of the state easily and quickly, without having to spend time in congested traffic and having to wait around in airports.

“It’s not supposed to be a commuter train,” Costa said. “It’s the most beneficial between 80 and 300 miles of travel.”

And with a projected 160,000 construction jobs and 450,000 permanent jobs created, the rail project would boost the economy, Costa said.

“It could be the shot in the arm the economy needs,” he said.

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