NEWS FROM Sacramento» Laura FRIEDMAN

Being Smarter About High-Speed Rail


There are few phrases in California politics that invoke as much passion as the words “high-speed rail.” The ambitious transportation infrastructure project seeking to move passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes, and ultimately connect San Diego to Sacramento, has become a centerpiece of public debate. The project has drawn controversy for its significant cost overruns while also inspiring recognition of our real need for viable mass transit in our state. Although the debate around high-speed rail is ongoing in the Capitol, I’d like to take a moment to explore the realities of the project and ask a question – can we use transit dollars in a smarter way?

California’s high-speed rail project was born in 1996 when the legislature formed the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA). Nearly a decade later, in 2008, California voters passed Proposition 1A that approved the issuance of $9 billion in bonds for the initial funding of the project.

Subsequently, the federal government made an additional $8 billion available in 2009, $2.25 billion in 2010, and $4 billion in 2011. Construction of the high-speed rail project officially began in Fresno in early 2015. In 2015, Gov. Brown and the legislature passed a bill allocating 25% of our annual cap-and-trade funds towards construction. 

I’m noting this history to bring attention to two key facts. First, high-speed rail is the result of efforts spanning more than two decades, with support repeatedly affirmed by both the legislature and the voters. Second, with a current price tag of nearly $80 billion, there’s a lot of money on the table. Given this enormous expenditure of funds I, and some of my colleagues, am arguing that it’s worth exploring ways to get a greater return on our investment.   

We have a major opportunity in our own backyard. With minor changes to the Merced to Bakersfield line, such as delaying electrification and reexamining the route, we could save between $5 and $6 billion. Those billions could instead be invested in other rail projects, including crucial projects between Burbank and Anaheim, which could create a much more efficient urban rail system. 

With the Hollywood Burbank Airport on one end and international landmarks such as Disneyland on the other, we could take thousands of cars off the road every day – making life easier for everyone along the 5 Freeway route. 

We could complete this vision with a fraction of the price tag for the Merced to Bakersfield line and its construction time. Lower costs would also translate to significantly lower ticket prices for riders; while high-speed rail tickets are expected to cost riders $200, the Burbank to Union Station fare runs about $6. Greater investment from Burbank to Anaheim will translate into more affordable prices and get millions where they need to go quickly.

The cost differential means everything when you are looking to increase ridership, as does potential utilization. Metrolink already services 1.8 million riders each year with 30-minute intervals during peak hours. With investments that will bring 15-minute all-day directional service at high speeds, there will be greater frequency, fewer delays and faster service. As a result, more people could rely on Metrolink for their transportation needs.

We are considering high-speed rail projects at a time when air quality across the state, particularly in the South Coast basin, is getting worse. One of the original intentions behind bringing electrified high-speed rail to the state was to decrease the impacts our transportation sector has on our air quality and greenhouse gas emissions. This would be achieved by reducing car dependency, traffic congestion and the long commutes between affordable housing and job centers. Investing in urban population centers such as Los Angeles and the Bay Area is a more effective way to achieve these goals. 

And once we prove that rail is an attractive option for commuters, public demand might put the original high-speed rail vision of a San Francisco to San Diego train back on the table. This proposal is not for an “instead of” project – it’s laying the literal track that we need to complete the bigger vision.

This proposal is in the early stages, but it is something I want you to think about. A $5 billion investment that has a bigger bang for every single dollar in terms of ridership, affordability for consumers and emission reductions is an opportunity the state should seriously consider.

What do you think? Do you have your own ideas for how we can more effectively utilize our high-speed rail investments? To ask a question, leave a comment, or for help in any other matter, reach out to my District Office at (818) 558-3043 or email

Laura Friedman represents Burbank, Glendale, La Cañada Flintridge, La Crescenta, Montrose, and the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Atwater Village, East Hollywood, Franklin Hills, Hollywood Hills, Los Feliz, and Silver Lake.