Next year, Californians will decide whether to finance a high-speed rail link from San Francisco to San Diego, a plan that supporters say would allow travelers on the congested 600-kilometer north-south route between San Francisco and Los Angeles to arrive in just 2.5 hours. The system would take 15 years to build and be the largest public works project in U.S. history.
It is sometimes said there are two Californias, one in the north and the other in the south, separated by miles of rugged coastline. This project would link them.
David Lyon, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, moderated forums in San Francisco and Los Angeles, which opened public debate on the high-speed rail system.
"The debate is going to be over the long term between those who would prefer to fix the system that we have, maybe build some smaller airports, find other ways of moving people from north to south and south to north," he said.
On the other side are those who say California needs a new transit system to link its urban centers, and that high-speed rail is the future of mass transit.
The project would be ambitious, covering 1,100 kilometers from San Diego in the south, through California's Central Valley, to San Francisco and Sacramento, the state's most northerly big cities. The electric trains would travel at 350 kilometers per hour.
It would cost between $25-$30 billion for trains, tracks, and stations. Funding would come from the state, if the voters give their approval, with federal matching funds from Washington.
Mr. Lyon calls the Los Angeles-San Francisco route one of the busiest in the United States, with crowded freeways and congested air lanes.
"This is one of the most heavily trafficked corridors in the United States, and so therefore it becomes a major question as to how you can move a lot of people up and down that corridor in the least expensive way possible," he said.
Transportation planner Mehdi Morshed is executive director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which state officials set up to plan and operate the system. He says that to be effective, it must offer the traveling public better service than the airlines.
"We are not going to be able to convince people to take public transportation because it's a public good," he said. "We have to convince people to take public transportation because it's better for them."
That means quicker and more convenient. He says the cost of travel would be comparable to the cost of flying, about $50 each way between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The rail project would be a great improvement over existing travel systems, says Rod Diridon, who made the trip from northern California to Los Angeles for the second part of this forum, leaving at 4 a.m. to arrive at a 10 o'clock meeting. The flight time of less than an hour is only part of the journey. It also includes travel to the airport, passenger check-in and screening, and a Los Angeles taxi, which makes a trip of more than four hours in total.
"Now if we had high-speed rail, I could have cut about two hours off of that," he said.
Mr. Diridon is executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University, and he says high-speed rail is not new technology.
"It's been in operation in Japan now for 39 years, without one fatality," he said. "That, by the way, is safer than walking on a sidewalk. It's the safest mode of transportation ever devised. It's been in operation in Europe for 20 years, and it's proven technology."
A recent survey shows that two-thirds of Californians support the project. But businesses are divided. One Los Angeles business group endorses it, saying high-speed rail would bring billions of dollars in revenue to the city. Another business group says the money could be better spent upgrading existing airports, and that the project's timing is bad, with California now facing a massive budget deficit.
Supporters respond that the project is not for the present but the future, when a growing population will clog existing transit routes.
The environmental group, Sierra Club, supports the system in principle, says club official John Holtzclaw.
"We like high-speed rail for three reasons," he said. "One, it consumes much less fuel. It creates much less pollution, and because it puts people off in stations, it encourages smart growth, compact growth around those stations. Our concerns are that it could be built in a way that would encourage sprawl, so we want it built in a way that does not encourage sprawl."
Environmentalists also want the route determined in such a way to protect wildlife habitats.
Supporters note that California once led the nation in public transportation, with San Francisco's colorful system of cable cars, which still operate as a tourist attraction, and a now-defunct electric railway in Los Angeles. Californians' well-known love of their cars has curtailed support for public transit, and a recent survey shows that three-quarters of working Californians drive to work alone.
Transportation expert Rod Diridon says high-speed rail could start to change that, and serve as the backbone of a system of trains and buses along the network.
"Without question, it will have more impact environmentally and economically on California than anything that has been considered in recent history or is being considered for the future," he said.
Before the venture can go ahead, supporters must sell it to the voters. In November, 2004, Californians will decide at the polls whether to approve the first $10 billion phase of the high-speed rail project.