The Road (And Rail And Reservoirs) Ahead: Can California Be Innovative—And Sensible?

Wednesday, May 1, 2019
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A quick look around the nation shows states making clever, necessary transportation improvements—even if the progress doesn’t occur overnight.

Take Texas, for example. The TEXRail commuter line, which opened in January—nearly 14 years after voters first approved its funding—covers 27 miles of Tarrant County from Fort Worth east toward Dallas (including one of America’s busiest airports) and is expected to ferry some 8,000 riders daily.

In Michigan, construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge is under way (for those of you who are sport-challenged, the late Gordie Howe was also known as “Mr. Hockey”). Once completed, that structure will span the Detroit River from southwest Detroit’s Delray district to Windsor, Ontario, about two miles downstream from the Ambassador Bridge (which was finished nine days after 1929’s “Black Monday” market crash).

And California?

Visit San Francisco and what stands out are a pair of postcard-pretty suspension bridges each over 80 years of age—plus a third and more modest suspension span (it opened in 2013) notable for its corroded steel and 2,500% cost overrun.

Way to the south in Los Angeles, the sky’s the limit on that city’s building ambitions. The City of Angels could be getting a new skyscraper—a 77-story hodgepodge of condos, hotel rooms, and commercial space—that would top the 73-story Wilshire Grand Center, currently the tallest tower in California (at 1,102 feet).

But what of that other Southern California trademark: freeways?

When the Century Freeway opened on October 14, 1993, conventional wisdom held that it was the end of an era, the last of the great Southland roadways. Twenty-five years and six months later, there is major California freeway construction underway, but it’s all the way over in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains—part of a High Desert Corridor better connecting Southern California and Las Vegas.

There is, of course, one signature California project that’s captured plenty of attention of late: high-speed rail. Only, for Californians that’s about as proud of a bragging point as red tide is for Floridians.

Here’s why:

Approved by voters over a decade ago (as a $40 billion down-payment on a statewide system), California high-speed rail is in theory a lovely concept for those who don’t like to fly the friendly skies—promising a ride in WiFi comfort between downtown San Francisco and downtown Los Angeles in under three hours. (The project also runs up and down the Central Valley, linking that region to the more affluent San Jose and Silicon Valley.)

But as is often the case in California, illusion and reality are entirely different matters.

The project’s cost has spiraled upward over the past decade. Litigation, tricky geology, re-engineering, and red tape have extended the completion date from 2020 to 2033.

And the hits keep coming: Governor Gavin Newsom, in his first State of the State Address earlier this year, threw cold water on the concept (he wants to move ahead on the Central Valley line while halting work on the Los Angeles–San Francisco connection). Republicans in Washington, DC, would like to redirect the federal commitment (more on that in this edition of Eureka).

It’s tempting to look at high-speed rail as an example of what California state government presently does oh so wrong: offer up grand ideas (like single-payer health care) that are long on nobility but short on cost feasibility.

The more nagging question is, Does this one project going off the rails presage a California that can’t address its infrastructure needs in a timely, practical matter?

In this edition of Eureka, we look at the future of California infrastructure from three perspectives: what do with funds earmarked for high-speed rail; how to develop more sensible, integrated surface-transportation systems; and how one state lawmaker has proposed improvements to the dreaded drive up and down California’s Interstate 5, from the “Grapevine” to Sacramento.

Meet some of our contributors:

  • House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who represents California’s 23rd Congressional District, suggests that the federal government’s financial commitment to high-speed rail should be repurposed instead to increasing California’s water-storage capacity.
  • Dr. Karen Philbrick, executive director of San Jose State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute, discusses smart solutions to transportation challenges that combine new technologies with nontraditional tools to better serve a growing population.
  • State Senator John Moorlach, whose 37th Senate District encompasses much of Orange County, explains his vision of a north-south highway, along the lines of the German high-speed autobahn, that would reduce congestion and delays along California’s I-5 corridor.

We hope you enjoy this latest installment of Eureka and that it gets you thinking about where California stands and whether America’s nation-state is moving in the right direction.