California high-speed rail project will benefit state, study shows

California High-Speed Rail Authority/Courtesy

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A study co-authored by a UC Berkeley professor suggests the recently approved California High-Speed Rail project will ultimately benefit the state, although the project will have high initial costs.

UC Berkeley professor Arpad Horvath and Arizona State University assistant professor Mikhail Chester authored the study, published Thursday in the journal “Environmental Research Letters,” which evaluates the environmental and human-health impacts for the future of long-distance transportation. Horvath and Chester focused on the California High-Speed Rail, to begin construction in 2013, and they assessed the impacts of the development of the rail, from beginning to end.

Chester said the goal of the study was to try to get a better understanding of how the rail system will impact California.

“Even when you account for the life cycle effects, it’s very likely that the development of the rail will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Chester said.

According to the California High-Speed Rail Authority website, the high-speed rail will reduce dependence on foreign oil by 12.7 million barrels per year and will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 12 billion pounds per year.  However, the study advocates for a more holistic view of the project that accounts for not only the environmental benefits, but also the potential for environmental damage.

Brian Weatherford, fiscal and policy analyst at the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, said the study provides a great deal of information that will be integral as the project moves forward.

“It’s really important that we see what emissions will be released in the construction of the project,” Weatherford said.

Chester said the project will be very beneficial to both the environment and to human health, but this progress will require a large investment. He said the project will include high costs because it is a major public works project, and its construction will have some negative environmental impacts on the state.

Some organizations oppose the construction of the rail out of concern that it will have a negative impact on the environment. Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, said her organization supports the project but has concerns about what the full environmental impact of the project will be.

According to Phillips, a public works project as large as this must comply with environmental laws.

“High-speed rail can be a part of a fully developed transportation system in California, but it has to comply with environmental laws,” Phillips said.

Chester said the high-speed rail will ultimately decrease California’s long-distance travel footprint. He added that the rail will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the same way that BART does — the rail will reduce the amount of energy used per person, compared to automobile or airplane travel.

Chester explained that once the system is fully built, all of California’s investment in the project will likely be returned within 20 to 30 years.

“In order to have an improvement, you have to make an investment,” Chester said.