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

Gov. Gavin Newsom: ‘Let’s level about the high-speed rail’

Governor Gavin Newsom in Tuesday's State of the State address gave his vision for building high-speed rail in California.
Up Next
Governor Gavin Newsom in Tuesday's State of the State address gave his vision for building high-speed rail in California.

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.

Dan Schnur.JPG
Dan Schnur

Mass transit is about to be revolutionized by private sector innovation as well. Large, fixed-route buses, light rail and subway systems will be replaced with smaller, smarter, autonomous minibuses with flexible routes. This will be cheaper for everyone – and avoids the enormous up-front capital costs of large public transit systems. The use of “big data” will provide the ability to take passengers on the most direct route to their destinations.

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.

Steve Westly.JPG
Steve Westly

Finally, our lawmakers must rethink our incredibly shrinking statewide high speed rail system. The

original proposal

on which Californians voted more than a decade ago would have moved passengers from Northern to Southern California in less than two-and-a-half hours. The project had a $9.95 billion budget and was guaranteed to pay for itself. What’s left from that original promise is a 119-mile Central Valley project which may benefit residents of that region, but will cost more than twice what the original system had been budgeted and almost certainly require annual cash infusions from the California taxpayer.

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.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee