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The High Speed Rail Debate Moves to the New York Times

The New York Times yesterday published a series of six opinion pieces debating the merits of the $90 billion High-Speed Rail plan that would connect Los Angeles to San Francisco. Attacks have intensified on the “bullet train” rail project in recent weeks, focused mainly on the projects gigantic $90 billion budget and a recent audit that called funding for the project “shaky.”  Meanwhile, Governor Jerry Brown has stood firm with his support for the project, there is some momentum to provide voters with a chance to repeal the bonding plan to support the project passed on a statewide ballot initiative in 2008.

Against this backdrop, it’s no surprise that four of the six writers at the Times’ website are questioning the value of the project. Streetsblog provides a summary of the six pieces after the jump, but for the full pieces visit “Room for Debate: Does California Need High Speed Rail.”

California Needs a Rail Project, but Not This One - Elizabeth Goldstein Alexis, Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design

Alexis makes the case that it’s not High Speed Rail that’s bad, but the current project and current Construction Authority.  Her closing paragraph pretty much describes the entire piece, “The real challenge is not finances or engineering or cranky neighbors. It is finding the political will to step back and figure out how to make sure public projects are designed for public benefit, not private.”

Dollars for Roads or Dollars for Rail - Emily Rusch, state director for CALPIRG.

CALPIRG has been leading the charge for High Speed Rail since before the bonding proposal passed in 2008.  Rusch swings for the fences, and hits the ball hard.  Her argument, that providing similar transportation capacity for roads or air travel would cost more than High Speed Rail.  In short, the fiscal numbers may be daunting, but not compared to the cost of building the same amount of infrastructure for other modes.

The Right Idea in the Wrong Place – Rick Geddes, associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University, a research associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Geddes argues that High Speed Rail is a lofty goal, but that it makes more sense in the Northeast Corridor (from Boston to Washington, D.C.) than it does in California.  Because there is already a rail demand for fast trains in the Northeast, and because land use and transportation plans have created better access to Downtown rail stations; High Speed Rail should be tried 3,000 miles from where it’s currently planned.

One Part of a Larger Plan - Shannon Tracey, Northern California field organizer for the Transportation for America coalition

“Does California need High Speed Rail?”  Noting California’s ambitious greenhouse gas plans and directionless statewide transportation planning, Tracey makes the case that California needs the rail line no matter the cost.  After all, there’s more ways to evaluate a project than just dollars and sense, and there are a lot of benefits to High Speed Rail.

We Need Rail Less Than We Used To – Bill Davidow, author of “Overconnected: The Promise and Threat of the Internet.”

Davidow argues that the ability to transfer information over the Internet makes high speed travel less needed than in generations past.  Basically, Davidow’s argument is that people will use infrastructure such as this rail project when they want a more complete experience, but that business and other “need” travel will be reduced, impacting ridership forecasts.

A Waste of Money for Years to Come –  Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, and author of “Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America.”

The title leaves little to the imagination.  Because most of the traffic on California’s freeways are of a more local nature, High Speed Rail won’t address the most congested areas despite its large price tag.

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