The Mercury News Weekend

Why high-speed rail remains a bargain for California­ns

- By Ro Khanna and Rod Diridon Sr.

Critics of California High Speed Rail are revving up their decadelong campaign against America's biggest and boldest infrastruc­ture project, seizing on new estimates of projected cost increases for an initial operating line in the Central Valley that will ultimately connect to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The constructi­on of the project began in 2015 and, when completed, it will have 520 miles of track connecting Los Angeles, the Central Valley and the Bay Area, including 21 miles of track through San Jose. Completed sites include Highway 99 and the Tuolumne Street Bridge in Fresno. Already, it has created over 10,000 union jobs across the state and has led to over $4 billion of economic activity in disadvanta­ged communitie­s.

California's experience with high-speed rail is an important lesson in how local zoning concerns and rising costs present challenges. No doubt, the estimated $6.3 billion to $9.5 billion cost increase to complete the 171-mile system from Merced to Bakersfiel­d is substantia­l. But before we succumb to cynicism and despair, let's not confuse the forest for the trees.

With Washington mobilizing massive investment­s to tackle the climate crisis and rebuild our nation's infrastruc­ture, all eyes are on California's grand experiment with high-speed rail. We know that with enough political will and funding we can demonstrat­e the transforma­tive benefits of high-speed rail to the American people.

But to seize this unique opportunit­y and finish the job, we need to keep the big picture in mind. In their endless critiques of the California High Speed Rail project, the naysayers never acknowledg­e that the only other way to address California's congestion crisis — building the equivalent of a new six-lane highway between San Francisco and Los Angeles as well as a major new airport — would cost far more than high-speed rail.

In 2019, a study calculated the costs of these two divergent pathways. Updated for inflation today, the report found that high-speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles would cost $87 billion less than highway and aviation expansion to create the same passenger capacity.

Doing nothing to expand California's strained transporta­tion capacity wouldn't be a free ride, either. Statewide, traffic congestion wastes 2.3 billion hours of time and costs California­ns $6 billion every year. In a do-nothing scenario, the interests profiting from the fly-and-drive status quo will prosper while working people and communitie­s shoulder the costs of a failing transporta­tion system.

The critics also won't mention that constructi­on costs are escalating across the nation for all highway and passenger rail projects — not just California High Speed Rail.

Nationwide, highway constructi­on costs have increased 30% since the start of the pandemic. But will high-speed rail critics gnash their teeth over the skyrocketi­ng cost of highway projects? Don't hold your breath.

Despite new estimated cost increases, California High Speed Rail still compares favorably with other high-speed rail projects around the world. Britain's

140-mile “HS2” High-Speed Rail Project is projected to cost between $42 billion and $54 billion. Meanwhile, the 171-mile Merced to Bakersfiel­d segment is projected to cost between $29.8 billion and $33 billion — about half the per-mile cost of the comparable British system.

So the next time you hear a pundit whining about the costly California High Speed Rail project, keep the big picture in mind. The truth is that highspeed rail is the cheapest, cleanest option to address congestion. Compared to the alternativ­es, it's a downright bargain.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Santa Clara, represents the 17th District in the House of Representa­tives. Rod Diridon Sr. is co-chair of the U.S. High Speed Rail Coalition and chair emeritus of the U.S. High Speed Rail Associatio­n.

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