March 1, 2010
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Years Ahead of the Curve on High-Speed Rail
BY SUSAN BERLIN, Senior Editor
Thanks to the Obama administration and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, high-speed rail is suddenly a prominent part of the American transportation landscape. But California was examining this option long before it hit the nation’s headlines: in November 2008, the state’s voters approved Proposition 1A, which authorized $9.95 billion in state bonds to finance high-speed rail.
Mehdi Morshed, the retiring executive director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, talked about his 11 years preparing for a high-speed rail corridor from Sacramento through San Francisco, all the way south to San Diego—which could extend 800 miles.
“The voters approved the general obligation bonds in 2008, the same election when Obama was elected [president]. Those two things were the best things that happened to the concept of high-speed rail as a whole,” he said. “In California, with the economy in the tank, people still voted to support this project. Then, the new president started articulating his vision of high-speed rail for the entire nation. We could not have a better combination of events to put high-speed rail on the national scene.”
Morshed then described how each year his authority “had to make the case before the [state] legislature and governor that this project was essential for the future of California—that was not an easy sale….The challenge has been to show that high-speed rail is an essential need of the state while also doing preliminary work like environmental studies and determining station locations.”
He explained that he was a board member of the California High-Speed Rail Commission before taking on the top job. However, his consideration of high-speed rail as an appropriate alternative for California began earlier, in the mid-1990s, when he served as chief of staff for the California Senate Transportation Committee.
“I had responsibility for providing analytical and professional support to the committee that covered transportation mobility,” he said. “As we studied the issue, we began to see that California’s ability to meet its future growth and economic viability was getting further and further compromised by its lack of ability to provide the necessary transportation infrastructure to deal with the state’s growing population. We just didn’t have the ability to expand our airports and highways to accommodate the additional 15-million-plus people we saw coming to California in the next two decades.” He explained that some parts of California were already so built up that finding space for new freeways or airports would be difficult.
The state needed a new transportation strategy; Morshed found it in Europe and Japan, where high-speed rail was already an alternative for intercity travel. He served on the commission that created an economic feasibility study and recommended the creation of the authority to oversee future high-speed rail efforts.
“We weren’t selling technology to the public; we were documenting and providing information to the public that would suit the facts,” he explained. “California’s population is growing and will continue to grow; the state’s economy and lifestyle depend on high levels of mobility; and we can’t meet those needs simply with highways and airports, so we need to build this.”
Looking ahead, Morshed estimated that the state could begin work on some segments of the high-speed rail line in about two years. If funding is available, he said, the project could be complete in eight to 10 years.
Proposition 1A and California’s Plans
When voters approved California’s Proposition 1A in November 2008, Quentin Kopp, chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority, said: “History will remember this night, when Californians demanded a new transportation system for California’s 21st-century travel needs. Thanks to tonight’s vote, a state-of-the-art, new transportation choice will link every major city in the state and move people and products like never before. The citizens of California have put the 21st-century ‘golden spike’ in the ground with a clear affirmation of high-speed trains.”
The authority noted that when the line is complete, the full trip from Sacramento to San Diego—about 588 miles—will take about three and a half hours.
The high-speed rail system will operate at 220 mph, according to the authority, and will cost less than half what building more freeway lanes and airport runways would require. This system will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ease traffic congestion. Officials estimate that the system could transport up to 117 million passengers annually by 2030, with the capacity to carry high-value, lightweight freight as well.