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Viewpoints: An environmentalist’s case for high-speed rail

The California League of Conservation Voters supported Proposition 1A, the 2008 ballot measure that approved the issuance of bonds to fund high-speed rail in the state. As the president of the California league, I wanted to share why I think this program is so pivotal in our efforts to “decarbonize” California and is part of our international climate leadership.

Right now, there really are only two ways to travel between the mega-regions of this huge state of ours. People have to spend money on plane tickets or time in a car to travel to see family, to go on vacation or to do business. It’s not only expensive and time-consuming, but all that driving and burning of jet fuel have a major impact that most do not consider – a high cost to our environment. Transportation is the single biggest contributor to climate change in California.

The state’s transportation sector, according to the California Air Resources Board, accounts for 38 percent of our collective carbon footprint. That’s the same as California’s electric, commercial, residential and agricultural sectors combined. Reforming how people get around our state, by introducing more environmentally friendly transportation choices, isn’t just a good idea, it is absolutely essential to meeting California’s world-leading carbon pollution reduction goals.

As we have seen in other places where high-speed rail is already in existence, like Spain, Japan and France, it is one of the most energy- and environmentally-efficient forms of mass passenger transport there is. Studies show that when done right, high-speed rail produces only a small fraction of the pollution of an average plane or car trip over the same distance, on a per-passenger basis. In addition, California’s high-speed rail system will run on renewably generated electricity, from the ample resources in California, meaning for our state, high-speed rail will reduce pollution whenever someone rides it and gives up a car or plane trip.

The Mineta Transportation Institute in San Jose recently authored an analysis of the world’s high-speed rail systems and found that, in similar corridors, high-speed rail would prove a very attractive option for California, securing a sizable share of trips around the state.

In other words, high-speed rail, by shifting travel away from dirtier transportation modes such as planes and cars, would do wonders in reducing the transportation sector’s impact on our carbon footprint.

By 2040, high-speed rail could reduce vehicle miles traveled in our state by nearly 10 million every single day – nearly 3.6 billion miles every year. That’s nearly equivalent to taking all the cars that travel daily across the Bay Bridge off the road entirely. And every single vehicle mile not traveled helps California combat climate change.

By 2040, high-speed rail could reduce total carbon dioxide emissions by between 11.5 and 18.3 million metric tons. In addition to these benefits, the High-Speed Rail Authority is committed to net-zero emission construction, pledging to offset or alter construction practices to make the entire project emission-neutral. Let me say that again: this massive infrastructure project will be constructed with neutral-emissions effect on the environment. What highway project can make this claim?

And, once operational, California’s high-speed rail system has committed to run on renewable energy.

Taking all this into account – reduced carbon pollution, reduced vehicle miles traveled, clean construction and clean fuels, I have concluded that this project is an essential part of meeting our state’s long-term climate-change goals.

To those who opine that we won’t see benefits in the short term, or that it’s too expensive, I say: the cost of doing nothing is more expensive. California’s population is projected to grow to 50 million over the next several decades. It is estimated that the cost of meeting the transportation requirements of California’s growing population by building more freeways and airport runways – if this could be done at all – would be at least $150 billion, more than double the cost of building the high-speed rail system from Los Angeles to San Francisco. And, as I mentioned above, there are huge costs to our environment associated with building more roads and runways.

High-speed rail, like our fight against global climate change, must be understood as a long-term commitment that will bring long-term benefits. Saving our planet and protecting the air we breathe requires that we reject the false choice between short- and long-term strategies. I, for one, know it is imperative that we do both, for us, for our children and for generations to come.