Clearing the Air Around High-Speed Rail

Clearing the Air Around High-Speed Rail
The high-speed rail is probably one of the most divisive projects yet. Some say it will be good for the economy, but how beneficial will it be for the environment?

By Tom Frantz

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has made many wonderful sounding promises. The 2-hour and 40-minute trip for $50 between downtown Los Angeles and downtown San Francisco by 2029 sounds fantastic. The millions of projected annual riders make the proposal sound profitable for private investors and the millions of replaced car trips imply cleaner air and reductions in green house gas emissions. The construction machinery will be the least polluting equipment available, and the electricity for the trains will be entirely from renewable sources.

Trees will be planted in urban areas to offset the greenhouse gas emissions from construction. Hundreds of local people will be hired at good wages to build and maintain the system. Early construction will take place in the economically depressed San Joaquin Valley between Merced and Bakersfield with completion of that section by 2018. Locations like downtown Fresno and Bakersfield will see thousands of new residences built in close proximity to the new stations.

California certainly needs better public transportation. Moving people quickly and cleanly between the Bay Area and Los Angeles should be supported. But there are two sides to every coin, and in this case there is the dream picture described above and the real world reality of a pig with lipstick.

The speed of the train will be far slower than advertised. The rail authority has decided to use currently existing tracks for dozens of miles at both ends of the route. They call this a “blended” system. Average speeds above 60 mph are out of the question on those sections. About four hours will be the norm for a one-stop trip and the trains that stop at each station along the route will take more than five hours. The ticket cost is now expected to be at least $80. The slower speed and greater ticket price means ridership will be less than projected. Lower ridership will increase the need for continual taxpayer subsidies instead of the projected private profit-making investment.

The construction between Merced and Bakersfield is a massive project. This means there will be lots of new air pollution generated where the air is already the worst in the nation. It is great that they promise to use the cleanest equipment available, but even the latest diesel engines still pollute the air. They have volunteered to pay the San Joaquin Valley Air District up to $35 million over 14 years to offset this air pollution. The rail authority states this money will go toward cleaner school buses and replacement of diesel agricultural pumps.

But the Air District gets to decide how to spend the money, and in 2014 it spent more than $4 million for conversion of dirty wood stoves to cleaner versions when it should have banned wood burning in homes altogether. There is no guarantee the $2 million per year from high-speed rail will be spent effectively by the air district and actually offset even half the emissions from construction.

High-speed rail is also using funds designated for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It is current law that 25% of cap-and-trade carbon allowance auction proceeds from the biggest greenhouse gas polluters will be used for building this project. This will increase to 35% in another year and for several years afterward. The justification is that the rail system will reduce greenhouse gases by taking cars off the road. But there is a problem.

The greenhouse gas reductions from high-speed rail will amount to less than one-10th of 1% of the total reductions needed in the State of California by 2050. In other words, massive amounts of money will be spent for relatively small returns affecting climate change and the money ultimately comes from residents paying more for electricity and gasoline.

Sadly, around 5,000 acres of prime farmland in the San Joaquin Valley will be permanently removed from production by this rail project. This could have been avoided with a route following I-5 where surrounding farms would not be subject to further bisection or removal. The rail authority does promise to mitigate this farmland loss by preserving an equal amount of land through a farmland trust program. It is good the rail authority is willing to do this, but the loss will still take place. One question is, will they have enough funding to protect farmland that is close to urban areas or will less valuable land be chosen?

The project also promises to use 100% renewable energy for powering the trains. Solar panels along the route would be an ideal solution for the power. The rail authority talks about using some solar, but it also mentions geothermal energy and energy from dairy methane digesters. It seems the rail authority does not intend to actually pay for much renewable energy itself but simply tag along on California’s plans to increase the quantity of electricity from renewable sources over time. Unfortunately, burning methane collected from dairies will actually add air pollution to the San Joaquin Valley. If the rail authority is promoting that idea, then it might as well use steam engines and power them with cow manure.

The High-Speed Rail Authority intends to plant trees to offset 100% of the greenhouse gas emissions from construction. But this intent seems to be wishful thinking. A single tree, or about 1,000 pounds over the life of a tree, can sequester only 20 pounds of CO2 annually. For the predicted greenhouse gases from construction in the San Joaquin Valley, there will need to be 150,000–250,000 trees planted over the next three years and then kept alive for the next 40 years in order for the construction phase to be carbon neutral as promised. This number of trees will require 2 billion–3 billion gallons of water annually and provide several hundred full-time jobs for maintenance. It sounds like a great benefit for the San Joaquin Valley if enough lawns are removed and everyone showers with a friend to provide the water.

Unfortunately, the rail authority has told the State Assembly that there will only be 5,000 trees and most of them will go to homeowners or civic groups for planting with no extra money for maintenance. If that is true, it is a cruel joke to say the construction will be carbon neutral because of tree planting.

Then there is the question of local development spurred by the rail stations in places like downtown Fresno and Bakersfield. What form will that development take? The rail authority predicts that up to 7,000 high-density residential dwelling units will be built adjacent to the new rail station in downtown Fresno. But this cannot be forced by the rail authority and is entirely up to the whims of local developers and their lackeys on the City Council who still think most homes need to be on 10,000-square-foot lots with a grass lawn in front and space for a pool and RV parking in the back. Fresno sets this idea as a goal, but who believes it will happen?

Finally, California does need a better passenger and freight rail system. Electrifying and expanding the current system in the San Joaquin Valley should have taken priority over this high-speed rail plan. Right now, the public should be demanding full accountability and fulfillment on the promises made in the 2008 ballot initiative approving this project. Ironically, high-speed rail is probably old technology. The Hyperloop is coming.


Longtime clean air advocate Tom Frantz is a retired math teacher and Kern County almond farmer. A founding member of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, he serves on the CVAQ steering committee and as president of the Association of Irritated Residents. The CVAQ is a partnership of more than 70 community, medical, public health, environmental and environmental justice organizations representing thousands of residents in the San Joaquin Valley unified in their commitment to improve the health of Californians. For more information, visit


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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