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Rail of two cities

July 07, 2006|Michael S. Dukakis and Arthur H. Purcell | MICHAEL S. DUKAKIS, former Massachusetts governor and past vice chairman of Amtrak, teaches political science and public policy at Northeastern University and UCLA. ARTHUR H. PURCELL is an environmental management analyst and educator based in Los Angeles.

IF MAYOR Antonio Villaraigosa wants to relieve traffic congestion and reduce transportation energy use, he should join his Bay Area counterpart in pushing for high-speed rail in California. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom recently spent a day in Sacramento to make the case for high-speed rail and to support AB 713, which would put the state's moribund rail bond issue on the 2008 ballot.

The California High Speed Rail Authority has developed a plan for a rail network to link our major metropolitan areas with 200-mph passenger trains. If implemented, it would mean that L.A.-to-San Francisco travel would take just three hours. Supported by past governors of both parties, the system would not only link the two cities, it would connect them with Sacramento, San Jose, the Central Valley, Riverside and San Diego.

A bond issue to fund initial high-speed rail work has been long delayed by politics. This is where City Hall comes in. The two mayors have the vision and the mandates to not only significantly improve public transportation networks in their cities but to reshape the state's crowded north-south air and ground transportation corridor.

These public-transit-minded mayors are faced with the critical challenge of maintaining and upgrading reliable, affordable public transportation systems that would help all Californians beat the high costs of gasoline and would provide transportation to move people during emergencies. Side benefits would be fuel conservation and less strain on our aging highways. To do all this, the mayors will have to look beyond their city limits to understand the role that intercity high-speed rail can play.

Traffic between our cities (there are thousands of daily car trips between them) also means more traffic within our cities. So the more car trips that can be shifted to rail -- and the quicker that high-speed public transit connections to rail stations can be developed -- the less congested all our cities will be.

San Francisco and L.A. have long struggled with costly airport expansion plans that have been fought tooth and nail by the communities most affected by them. The estimated tab for expanding these airports runs into the billions of dollars, and in both cities, the debate over expansion seems destined to go on for years.

There are dozens of flights each day, carrying 10,000 to 15,000 passengers, between the metropolitan areas of these two cities. Currently, one-third of the flights out of LAX and SFO are for trips of 350 miles or less. A high-speed rail system would be a viable alternative to some if not all those trips, easing traffic congestion and reducing pressures to expand local airports.

Shifting more traffic to trains would require expansion of stations and other infrastructure -- as well as acquisition of rights of way. But if done properly, it would result in much less environmental impact on people than would airport expansion.

The governor has proposed a $110-billion transportation bond, mostly for highways. Total costs for the high-speed rail system are estimated to be about $35 billion, but this would be matched 50-50 or better by Washington. And the system could be up and running in eight to 10 years.

Californians spend increasingly longer times stuck in traffic -- in cities and between cities. The state needs high-speed rail, and it needs strong support from its political leaders to achieve it. Villaraigosa and Newsom can do something that has been all too rare: unite the state's two major cities in a common cause that will pay dividends for their communities and the entire state for generations to come.

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