Good reporting on a tough topic

What we like about this article from the Bakersfield Californian is that, with the possible exception of mentions of truck pollution being reduced by the High-speed rail system, there is no undigested propaganda in it. This is probably because for Bakersfield, air pollution is a very serious matter, in fact an “existential threat” to the elderly and to the young. In Merced, which stands to get a rail station out of the deal that would radically increase the value of downtown real estate, the official position in the press is that high-speed rail is the best thing since UC Merced, Mom’s apple pie and sliced bread (because it promises to renovate downtown Merced, which has languished for decades in the hands of greedy, do-nothing landlords.
Badlands Journal editorial board
Bakersfield Californian
High-speed rail promises green -- but how green?...Tim Sheehan, The Fresno Bee
High-speed rail could help cut air pollution in California -- if the system succeeds in getting enough people out of their cars.
Planners with the state's High-Speed Rail Authority expect that the electric trains could reduce traffic on the state's roadways by 2.5 percent by 2035.
Each vehicle-mile traveled creates emissions that foul the air with greenhouse gases, smog-forming chemicals and fine particles like soot and dust.
Whether high-speed trains can deliver on the promise of improved air quality, however, will depend largely on their ability to attract enough riders.
That's a questionable proposition, experts suggest, based on studies of other systems around the world.
And in letters and at hearings up and down the San Joaquin Valley, some people are saying they believe the pollution benefits are either being overstated or require additional study before construction begins next year.
The rail authority hopes to launch construction next year on its Fresno-to-Bakersfield stretch, the first piece of what is expected to be a system of 220-mph trains connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles by the early 2020s. Ultimately, extensions would reach Sacramento and San Diego, with trains running statewide by 2035.
Engineers working for the rail authority say that's when the air-quality benefits would start taking effect. By the time the trains are running statewide, ridership would reduce car and truck traffic on the state's highways by more than 31 million vehicle-miles a day -- or about 2.5 percent of all daily miles driven in the state.
If those predictions are accurate -- and it's a big "if" -- that would reduce car and truck emissions of greenhouse gases -- the pollutants, including carbon dioxide, that are typically associated with global warming or climate change -- by nearly 5.8 million tons each year statewide compared to a future without high-speed trains, according to the engineering projections.
By 2020, the longest-range forecasts available from the California Air Resources Board, greenhouse gases from highway vehicles are expected to add up to more than 187 million tons a year. The statewide reductions predicted by rail planners represent just 3 percent of that 2020 forecast.
In the valley, the anticipated reduction of more than 9.8 million vehicle-miles every day in cars and trucks would slice annual greenhouse gas emissions by 1.7 million tons by 2035 -- less than 1 percent of the state's total emissions.
Those estimates don't include the air-quality benefits of fewer airline flights because of the trains.
The rail authority maintains that taking people out of cars and planes is only one benefit.
"High-speed rail has proven around the world to be more efficient than other modes of transportation," the agency said in a statement. But, "potentially the biggest benefit ... is introducing the means by which California can handle its future growth in a more sustainable manner."
Backers believe train stations will become hubs to promote growth based on improved public transportation instead of urban sprawl, reducing people's reliance on automobiles over the long term.
Significant benefit?
The rail authority acknowledges, however, that benefits are tied to ridership and the numbers of vehicle trips that trains replace.
But those expected benefits won't kick in for years, until the system has an established ridership. In the nine years to build the line through 2021, engineers predict that earthmoving and other construction activities could pump about 1.6 million tons of greenhouse gases into the region's air.
Pollution created during construction of high-speed train systems in other countries prompted some international experts to question the overall air-quality improvements claimed by backers of the technology.
In studying European high-speed train projects, Spanish scholar Ginés de Rus of the University of Las Palmas said in the Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis that "the environmental effect of the HSR technology is particularly acute in the construction phase."
De Rus' article earlier this year reported that "the negative environmental effects of the construction of a new HSR have to be compared with the reduction [of pollution from] road and air transport when passengers shift to HSR."
Over the long term, "high-speed rail is under most circumstances likely to reduce greenhouse gases from traffic compared to a situation when the line was not built," Swedish researcher Per Kagenson declared in a 2009 paper for the International Transport Forum. "The reduction, though, is small and it may take decades for it to compensate for the emissions caused by construction."
Other consequences
The rail authority believes its estimates may, in fact, understate the potential air-quality benefits because the figures don't count the agency's plans to buy electricity only from renewable sources -- solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and small hydroelectric dams -- to power the trains. Avoiding electricity generated by burning fossil fuels like natural gas or coal will enhance the air-pollution reductions, officials said.
But critics say the environmental reports for the valley rail segments ignore other potential air-pollution effects.
E.J. deJong, a Hanford farmer and dairyman, said the rail line bisecting his property will close Lansing Avenue and add about eight miles to each round trip his trucks must drive to get back and forth between his farm fields on one side of the tracks and his dairy on the other side.
"Just for our silage harvest, that's going to be at least 3,000 extra gallons of diesel a year," deJong said. "That's a lot of trucks, and they're not very fuel efficient when fully loaded."
DeJong added that his calculations don't include other farming operations on his property, including the trucks used to spread manure on the fields and trips by tractors and other equipment -- all using fuel and all producing emissions. Nor do they include other farmers up and down the line who will be similarly affected, he said.
The city of Chowchilla is also worried about dust and valley fever -- a fungal infection of the lungs caused by spores in the soil -- kicked up by dozens of trains flying through the region each day.
The trains have "the potential to create near hurricane-force winds with trains traveling at 220 mph," Chowchilla Mayor David Alexander wrote in a letter to the rail authority. "Such forces will certainly cause particles to fly" and create dust-devils -- the small, dusty summer whirlwinds that blow across valley fields.
"Research on the effects of dust devils indicates that the frequency of valley fever is among the by-products of such wind-driven phenomena," Alexander added.
Even the Sierra Club, which supports the project, is concerned about pollution from growth that might be spurred by the trains and stations.
"If we can reduce our impacts on the air-quality problem of the San Joaquin Valley, we would be delighted," local Sierra Club representative Gary Lasky of Fresno said at a rail authority hearing last month in Fresno.
But "there could be growth-inducing impacts with people wanting to move into the San Joaquin Valley and build housing here because they could effectively commute to other cities," Lasky added. "We welcome that [growth], but we don't welcome the impacts on air quality and local traffic. We need to know more."