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California's High Speed Rail

Several states in the U.S. are taking some initiatives to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions. California is currently working on building the first high speed commuter rail (HSR) in the nation. The rail will run on 100% renewable energy, making it a zero emission train. The purpose of the rail is to connect the north and the south, while contributing to economic development, creating jobs, and helping to build a cleaner environment. Phase 1 will connect San Francisco to Los Angeles, but the goal is to eventually connect San Diego to Sacramento. This will total 800 miles being connected by this rail and there will be around 24 stations along the way.

The rail has been a longtime dream of residents and politicians in California. In 1981, the idea of creating a high-speed rail in Southern California was discussed. In 1996, the California High Speed Rail Commission was created. In 2008, voters approved the financing method for the rail. In 2015, a ceremony occurred to honor the beginning of construction of the HSR.

Groundbreaking Ceremony of HSR PC: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

As of 2023, the design for the rail in Central Valley is nearly finished and the Central Valley has 119 miles of active construction. Phase 1 of the HSR will be 500 miles, and 422 of those miles are environmentally cleared under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). More than 10,000 jobs have been created, and from June 2006 to July 2021, $13.7 billion has been created in economic output because of the HSR. It is also noted that 720 small businesses have been involved in some part of the process. Additionally, $4.8 billion had been spent in disadvantaged communities, thereby benefiting their economy.

Construction of the High Speed Rail in the Central Valley PC:

Construction of the High Speed Rail in the Central Valley PC:

The HSR had been predicted to “keep more than 3,500 tons of harmful pollutants out of the air - every year” according to the California High Speed Rail Authority. Additionally, 7,100 trees have been planted in disadvantaged communities that are near where the rail is being built in order to offset emissions that have come from the construction of the HSR. 2,900 acres of habitat have either been protected or restored throughout this process.

The timeline for the HSR has been pushed back several times but overall, the rail has been consistently supported by voters, especially those between the ages of 18-39. According to a new survey by UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies, “56% of registered voters support the state continuing to build the high-speed rail project, even if, as is currently planned, its operations only extend from Bakersfield to Merced in the Central Valley by the year 2030 and to the Bay Area by the year 2033.” (UC Berkeley Poll)

In 2021, California faced a net loss of quarter million residents. The declining influx of immigrants, lower birth rates, higher death rates, and skyrocketing housing costs causing people to emigrate are just a few reasons for the withering population. With the pandemic, the public's usage of public transportation decreased. From the inception of the rail system, the justification of its astronomical costs was expected population growth. This has caused some to become skeptical about whether or not the HSR will be a positive choice for California in the long run. The environmental impact of the high speed rail depends on one important unknown factor: ridership. With swift completion of construction and high ridership, the high speed rail promises great payback. However, with recent delays, increasing costs, the pandemic, and declining population this could point to environmental net loss. Greenhouse gas emissions are predicted to rise by around 15% due to the concrete that must be utilized for the creation of the rail. While the emissions are not due to the electricity needed to operate the trains, these confounded supply-chain factors raise concerns. With low ridership, some worry that the greenhouse gas emission payback may never occur, despite the rail authority’s efforts to offset emissions. (Life Cycle Environmental Assessment).

Despite the mixed emotions, the HSR has the potential to revolutionize transportation in the United States, as it responds to 21st century needs of efficient and environmentally conscious public transit. Many European countries have successful high-speed rails that have proven to be popular and effective ways to travel. But only time can truly tell whether or not the HSR in CA will provide all the benefits it has promised. In the meantime, we can utilize current mass transit through riding on buses and local trains! To learn more about the status of the HSR’s construction, check out the official government website for theCalifornia High-Speed Rail Authority and to learn about the HSR’s small business program click here. Additionally, if you’d like to learn more about another California initiative, check out OC Habitat’s video on 30x30 Initiative in Orange County.

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