San Francisco and Los Angeles have long been thought of as cities that share a time zone and little else. Two beacons of creativity, San Fran’s cultural and social upheavals provide the crunchier counterpart to LA’s glitz and glamor in the public consciousness. While the more recent rise of Silicon Valley may be providing SF with its own glitterati, the two great metropolises of the west coast remain separated by nearly 400 miles, major mountain ranges, and perhaps most dauntingly, a minimum 6 hour drive.
That cultural and spatial distance is promising to change soon, however. A proposed 800-mile high-speed railway will connect the two cities faster than any previous earthbound option, with stops along the way in Fresno and Bakersfield. If all goes well, it’ll be expanded to Sacramento and San Diego, making the country’s most populous state smaller than ever for travelers and long-distance commuters alike.
Overseen by the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), the project will carry a projected 28.4 million riders per year between the two coastal centers under the current plan. The SF-to-LA journey will begin at the brand-new Salesforce Transit Center and Los Angeles’ Union Station. Speeding down purpose-built, dedicated tracks, the train cars will move at a mind-boggling 220 miles per hour, over twice as fast as the typical Amtrak train.
A 2008 ballot referendum approved a down payment on the build, in the form of a $9.95 billion bond measure to handle initial costs. Since then, the necessary fundraising has come in bits and pieces, with state and regional governments issuing bonds and approving piecemeal chunks of the necessary money. While the completed rail is still several years away (scheduled completion is in 2033), tracks are already being lain in anticipation. The ambitious project requires several viaducts and overpasses to carry riders over existing paths and highways, so construction crews are busy building the early stages of the massive pathway.
It’s no surprise, given that so many are affected by this project, that it’s stirred up a good amount of controversy. Infrastructure is rarely cheap, especially when it’s this ambitious. The high-speed rail project is no different, with costs increasing with every new hurdle. As of publication, the full cost is projected to reach up to $100 billion. An editorial in San Jose’s Mercury News exhorted the state Legislature to apply the brakes to the expensive rail plans due to the accelerating budget. Even aside from the expected cost concerns, other reasons deserving of consideration exist in opposition to the ambitious rail line.
While citizen surveys put support for the project at over 50 percent, advocacy groups claim environmental concerns are being neglected in the project and demand further study of the new tracks’ impact. Others predict low ridership, and some have even referred to it as “a train to nowhere.” Negative feelings about the project are abundant, with the complex, wide-reaching nature of the work spurring a variety of aggrieved citizens and organizers, each with their own reasons for standing in front of the proposed railway.
For now, the project is running full steam ahead. While planned completion still looms far away, the idea of a quick connection between the two distant cities is enough to sustain the embattled plans as they move forward. Travelers on both ends of the state may be able to reach their counterparts up (or down) the coastline faster than ever imagined. If there’s any collection of people with the vision and creativity to make these ambitious plans happen, it’s right here on the west coast.