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Opinion: High-speed rail is on right track despite the GOP

MODESTO, Calif. -- A bond measure that would allow major construction to start on the proposed high-speed rail line for California is one step closer to the ballot, after chugging through the Assembly Transportation Committee, according to an editorial in the Modesto Bee.

The bill authorizing the $9 billion bond, sponsored by Fresno Democratic Sen. Jim Costa, would pay for the first long stretch of the new rail line, between San Francisco and Los Angeles, on a route through the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.

The bill must be approved by two-thirds of each house in the state Legislature and be signed by Gov. Davis before it can be placed on the November ballot for the voters' approval. That is a task made more difficult by opposition to the measure from most Republican members of the Legislature. They argue that such sums are better spent improving the state's highways and airports.

The attitude of Assemblyman Rod Pacheco, R-Riverside, is typical of those opponents: "I'm still having trouble with why we need a high-speed train in California," he said. "I'm missing why the taxpayers would pay billions upon billions upon billions for a train that goes faster than the other trains we have."

It is distressing and frustrating to hear such comments. They betray an absence of the clear vision that Costa, state Treasurer Phil Angelides and many thousands of other Californians have about the future of transportation in this state. Here, as a quick review, is the short list of answers to Pacheco's lament:

* Sept. 11 demonstrated how dangerous it is to have all our long-distance transportation eggs in the air travel basket.

* No one expects high-speed rail to put the airlines out of business -- except perhaps the airlines, who are already organizing to destroy this vision.

* Passenger travel by train pollutes the air a great deal less than such travel by automobile. That's a significant concern, especially in the smog-choked valley.

* Construction of the high-speed line means a generation's worth of well-paying jobs. Maintenance of the system and construction of the rolling stock it will need offer further economic opportunities.

* When travel time to and from airports is factored in, plus increased time spent going through security procedures, airline travel won't be any faster -- and may be slower -- than the high-speed trains, once they begin to roll.

* Driving is full of aggravations that simply don't apply to train travel. It is dangerous, for instance, to try to do business on the phone while driving a car. On a train, it's both safe and easy.

Opponents of this measure should take a cue from Fresno Republican Sen. Chuck Poochigian, who voted for the bond measure in committee and on the Senate floor. Poochigian's credentials as a fiscal conservative are unchallengeable. He also sees the best interests of his valley constituents being well-served by this project. In fact, he has sponsored a bill requiring that at least two members of the High Speed Rail Authority, the board that governs development of the rail system, be residents of the San Joaquin Valley. It was also approved by the Assembly Transportation Committee late last month.

Costa's bond measure moves next to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. It deserves support there, especially from valley representatives. This is no pipe dream, no science fiction fantasy. High-speed rail is a successful reality throughout the industrialized world. It's time we have it here in California.

Wednesday, July 10, 2002

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