San Diego’s Railroad Deja Vu
By Bill Adams, April 6, 2013
California High-Speed Rail Program Revised 2012 Business Plan APRIL 2012, California HSR Authority
In the late 1800s, San Diego lost the race with Los Angeles to become the western terminus of a transcontinental railroad. As a result, despite some sound accomplishments, San Diego never matched its northern rivals in economic growth & prosperity.
The City’s third or fourth place economic status in the state (vs. its second place population status) has continued in no small part due to its remaining a “spur off the main track” when it comes to transportation. It’s port handles nowhere near the volume of Long Beach or the Bay Area (or Seattle or Portland, for that matter). It has no hub airport, thus requiring connecting flights to most destinations. Most of its rail freight must travel North before going East. San Diego’s proximity to its growing southern neighbor, Tijuana, seems an unrealized opportunity.
Even San Diego’s transportation links to its nearby powerhouse neighbor, LA, are inadequate with an oft congested I-5 freeway and a railway that has changed little in 100 years. With respect to the latter, Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner rail corridor, there are several slow-down areas caused by the primitive state of the tracks, including slowing for sharp curves around unreinforced bluffs to watch for fallen rocks, pulling over for trains traveling the opposite direction on the single track, and slowing down in heavily populated areas because of the route’s lack of pedestrian and auto separation features. A single track serves all the freight and passenger traffic, requiring complex scheduling. As a result, rail travel between the two cities typically takes at least an hour more by rail than by car. Despite the foregoing, Amtrak’s rail connection between San Diego and Los Angeles is the second busiest in the country. It is also one of the most scenic rides in the country, with significant stretches of rail nearly on the beach.
Now comes San Diego’s omission from “Phase 1″ of the High Speed Rail project. Upon completion of HSR, rail travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay area will take the same or less time than between San Diego and Los Angeles despite being more than three times further apart. Completion of Phase 1 is projected to be in 2030 and is estimated to cost $68 billion. No timetable or funding has been established for Phase 2.
Arguably, nothing has greater impact on San Diego’s economy than its transportation connection to its Northern neighbors. San Diego’s efforts to develop a hub airport failed and are unlikely to be revived. San Diego’s omission from HSR could be the second punch in a 1-2 combination punch transportation knockout. It’s unlikely that rubber tired solutions, e.g., freeway widening with its dubious record, will significantly mitigate its omission from HSR Phase 1.
Thus, it is curious that San Diego’s elected leaders have remained relatively passive about the region’s omission from the first and very possibly only (at least in our lifetimes) phase of the California High Speed Rail project. To be fair, Sacramento also will be left out of the first phase. On the other hand, Bakersfield and Fresno will be connected to the Bay Area and Los Angeles by HSR. Even Las Vegas may be on the way to having a high speed rail connection to the Greater Los Angeles area (by way of Victorville). Nevertheless, there has been no outcry, no clamoring for delegations to be sent to Sacramento, no threats to secede from the state, no threats to withhold tax revenues, no rallies, and no demands for compensatory pork. Given the magnitude of the omission and potential impact on the state’s second largest city, one might expect more rancor from the region’s political leaders about being left out rather than rancor simply about the project overall.
Many of the City’s elected representatives have focused more on concerns about the overall economics of the project (many calling it a “boondoggle”), while others have remained ambivalent. Whether the project turns out to be a “boondoggle” or a “boon” to California’s economy (as its supporters predict) remains to be seen. However, San Diegans will be paying for the project as much as Northern Californians but unlikely will see any benefit. In fact, San Diego will be further excluded from the State’s main economic corridor.
In this case, the “boondoggle” perceived by many perhaps needs better definition. Generally, HSR’s critics believe that the project will be heavily subsidized during its entire existence, thus remaining a constant drain on the State’s budget. However, it is undisputed that it will have an economic stimulus effect on certain segments of the population. Certainly, portions of the construction industry will benefit, and many skilled and unskilled workers will be employed during its construction.
Additionally, development is already being stimulated near planned rail stations. Finally, the cities served by HSR will directly benefit. Only the size of the benefit versus state subsidies is in question. Rather critics look at the overall statewide economic impact.
However for San Diego, the stakes are much higher. From commerce to education, the question should be: Will San Diego be able to compete in attracting new business or in keeping its successful start-ups with a secondary airport, secondary port, secondary freight rail connection, and now secondary passenger rail connection to the rest of the state? Compounding San Diego’s problem is the oft discussed need of businesses being able to attract “millennials” (i.e. new college graduates and young skilled workers) and their preference for urban amenities, of which transit ranks high.
Boondoggle or not, where is San Diego’s pork barrel politics to bring home some benefits from this ambitious undertaking? Will San Diego suffer its own form of boondoggle through failure of its leadership? Will San Diego’s fate be further sealed as as a community known mostly for its military bases, beaches, and retirees?
LOSSAN Corridorwide STRATEGIC IMPLEMENTATION PLAN, Final Report, April 2012, p. 37
However, all is not lost. Despite the aforementioned shortcomings of San Diego’s rail connection with Los Angeles, it is a direct and spectacularly beautiful, albeit antiquated connection. Moreover, regional planners have been planning various upgrades to our existing passenger rail connections. Nearly $1 billion is slated to be spent to install a second line on the existing coastal railway. San Diego Metropolitan Transit System and North County Transit District, together, will spend more than $100 million for safety and other light rail upgrades.
On the other hand, could San Diego’s omission from the HSR Phase 1 have been made into a blessing, or at least largely offset, by securing even greater investment in the existing rail corridor? Perhaps the corridor could even be made to accommodate the “higher-speed” Acela Express range of 80 to 110 mph? Perhaps a much needed direct airport-to-airport connection could be accomplished. After all, the existing rail route is far shorter and more direct than that proposed for the HSR Phase 2 route winding its way through the Inland Empire region. For a more in-depth discussion of the potential improvements for the Pacific Surfliner route, view the 2008 article Speeding up Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner.
With the significant improvements in the works for the San Diego to Los Angeles rail corridor, it is difficult to criticize the rail effort by the region’s transportation agencies. However, so much is being done with so little push from San Diego elected officials or the public, it begs the question what might be accomplished with more imperative and support?