In the early 1930s, our country was in the midst of the Great Depression, with thousands out of work. In order to boost the economy and help the working class, the U.S. began multiple government-funded work projects as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, like the Hoover Dam. The dam helped to power much of the Southwest and brought thousands of jobs to suffering Americans. Following the example set by Roosevelt, the state of California is currently working to implement a high-speed railway system. It would help to create jobs, re-energize the economy and address our current environmental anxieties.

Early in August, construction on a $4.2-billion Transbay Transit Center broke ground, becoming the first step in a potential $53.1-billion project connecting San Francisco, Los Angeles, Fresno and San Diego by way of a high-speed rail. The transit center alone will create 48,000 jobs in the San Francisco area and will serve more than 45 million passengers a year. This will be the country’s first high-speed railway system. It seems that we could soon join the fraternity of countries that have already figured out that effective public transportation is the way of the future.

Let me be clear that construction of a high-speed railway in California hasn’t gotten the green light yet. The Transbay Transit Center will operate as a base for the bus and rail systems already in place in San Francisco, but it’s also being designed to facilitate high-speed railways. Late in September, the state of California was granted $194 million to conduct preliminary engineering and environmental analysis for the project. This is an encouraging act of faith, demonstrating confidence in the plausibility of the high-speed railway.

The state of Michigan is working on a similar project that would link cities such as Grand Rapids, Detroit and perhaps even Chicago with a high-speed railway. Michigan isn’t as far along as California in terms of development, but it’s encouraging to know that our state sees the same potential in the technology.

Why it has taken the United States so long to begin a project like this is beyond me. After we pioneered our way across the country with our first transcontinental railway system, it seemed that once the technology was available, high-speed railways would be the next logical step. Yet the word “complacent” comes to mind — we spent the entire 20th century relying on cars and trucks and pumped billions of pounds of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

If the California high-speed railway is approved and construction begins, it should be finished between 2020 and 2030. The cost-benefit analysis shows that the railway should net about $2.84 billion by 2050. In addition to the fiscal advantages, the impact the rail system would have on the environment is invaluable.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority projects that a passenger choosing the rail instead of an airplane or a car would use one-third and one-tenth less energy, respectively. This dip in energy usage amounts to 5.8 million barrels of oil per year by 2030. It would also expel about one-tenth less pollutants and 6.8 billion less pounds of carbon dioxide annually into the atmosphere. The CaHSRA plans to achieve these projections with a mixture of natural gas and renewable energy methods to power the railways. They also have a 100-percent renewable energy goal that would save 12.7 million barrels of oil annually and prevent 12 billion pounds of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere annually.

The railway also has a convenience factor that shouldn’t be ignored. It would take a 6.5-hour car trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles and turn it into a 2.6-hour ride. Not only is train travel faster than car travel, but with so many people choosing to ride the train, highway congestion would also be reduced.

This project would generate nearly $2.6 billion in profits and thousands of new jobs, not to mention shrink our carbon footprint, implement renewable energy systems and reduce travel time. Why haven’t we done this already? Apparently, because we live in a country so reluctant to react to something so beneficial that opportunities often pass us right by. For instance, a 1,000-megawatt Lake Michigan wind farm was shot down by people more concerned with their view of the lake than future generations. The high-speed railway could fall victim to similar scrutiny, but the multidimensional nature of this green technology makes it less susceptible to the same criticism and more likely to materialize.

If California gets it right and sets the standard for public transportation, job creation and renewable energy, it will be setting an example for the rest of the country. A successful implementation of this technology in California could be the catalyst Michigan needs to accelerate plans for our own high-speed railway.

Joe Sugiyama can be reached at jmsugi@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.