It’s time for public transportation to harness private sector innovation

Someday, there will be a high-tech bullet train that whisks Californians from one end of the state to the other at lightning speeds. But in the meantime, most of us would just settle for getting home from work in less than an hour.

When we wonder who might deliver us from the horrors of perpetual traffic gridlock, consider the following contrast:

In late April, the California High-Speed Rail Authority announced that they would complete a route for their train from Bakersfield to Merced by the year 2030.

About a week later, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced that the rocket company he owns would complete a lunar lander to return humans to the moon in less than half that time – within five years.

Who do you think is more likely to come through – on time and under budget?


While California retreats from a once-ambitious plan for a bullet train from the Bay Area to Los Angeles that would eventually connect to Sacramento, the global auto industry is moving at breakneck pace toward a future that is increasingly electric, autonomous and smarter. Virtually every automaker is bringing electric vehicles to market that will soon be substantially cheaper than internal combustion engines, and private sector entrepreneurs across the state and the country are racing to hone self-driving vehicle technology.

While fully autonomous cars requiring no human oversight are still years away from widespread use, it’s almost certain that this breakthrough will occur long before local or state governments develop transportation alternatives that will free us from our ongoing traffic nightmare.

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Dan Schnur

We must also confront the increasing economic, environmental and quality-of-life threat that commuter congestion is causing to our major metropolitan areas. London and Stockholm have instituted congestion fees as a way of reducing the overwhelming numbers of cars coming into their central cities. New York is preparing to follow that example.

It’s time for California’s largest cities to do so as well, but with a twist.

For years, regional transportation districts have allowed commuters with two or more passengers into special carpool lanes. City planners are already considering incentives which would require ride-hailing companies to similarly discount trips for passengers who elect to travel with two or more passengers in the vehicles, and charge equally steep premiums for passengers who choose to drive alone.

It’s become a cultural totem to acknowledge the special relationship between Californians and their cars, but the right set of financial and lifestyle incentives could quickly change that.

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Steve Westly
original proposal

Better to direct the resources designated for a statewide project into other regional systems instead, but using new technologies that are both faster and less expensive.

The current rail project relies on 1960’s-era technology, for which the initial capital cost is huge. Newer technologies developed by multiple, competing companies could save the state billions in upfront costs and even more in ongoing operating and maintenance fees. The question isn’t how to pay for high speed rail, but whether to deploy more modern and less expensive technology to do the job right.

There is a revolution taking place in new transportation technologies, and California is the global leader. Our public sector leaders can harness private sector innovation to make that future into a reality.

Dan Schnur, the former chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, is director of the The Sacramento Bee/McClatchy California Influencer series. Steve Westly, the former California state controller, is the managing partner of The Westly Group in Silicon Valley.
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