Some mega-commuters may not reap the benefits of California bullet train

Feb 13, 2017

 

This is Part of 3 a four-part series about high-speed rail in California. Part 1: First Stop, Fresno. Part 2: Corn nuts and the bullet train. Part 3: Will the train be affordable?. Part 4: San Jose to San Francisco — easier said than done. Listen to the whole show: Inside High-Speed Rail.   

High-speed rail construction is happening right now in the Central Valley, even though the project doesn’t have all the money it needs.

 

 

The first segment from Fresno to San Jose is supposed to rideable by 2025 — that’s only eight years away. The whole segment is projected to be ready by 2029 at the earliest.

 

Officials hope the train will provide an alternative to airline and automobile travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Right now, close to 65,000 people commute to the Bay Area from the northern San Joaquin Valley, with commute times clocking in at two hours or more. Expensive Bay Area home prices have pushed families farther away from where they work and closer to some Central Valley high-speed rail stops.

Credit California High-Speed Rail Authority

A long commute

Nuemi Guzman works in downtown San Jose. She’s a legal assistant at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley. She and her family live 80 miles away in Los Banos.

“We bought a house a year and four months ago, and adjusting to having our own house has been great, the kids love it, but it's just less time that we spend there because we're always on the road trying to get to work,” she says.

Guzman deals with the long commute because she and her husband couldn’t afford a house closer to work. Having the home of their dreams means waking up very early, saying goodbye to her kids, and driving to Gilroy. There, she hops on a bus to San Jose.

In the evening, she does it all over again in reverse, all the while crossing her fingers there isn’t an accident or other traffic jam along the way. If that happens, her two-hour commute can turn into six hours.

“Traffic is ridiculous getting home...ridiculous,” Guzman says.

And it’s only gotten worse since she moved into their new subdivision. Her family was the first on the block.

“So we got to see everybody move in and got to know all of our neighbors,” she says. “And everyone down our block works in San Jose, Sunnyvale or Mountain View, so everybody is commuting.”

No stop in Los Banos

Could high speed rail cut down on their commute time? The answer is complicated because there isn’t going to be a stop in Los Banos, despite the thousands of Bay Area commuters who live there.

“Well if it was in Los Banos, I think that would make it absolutely worth it because then I could just jump on the [high-speed] rail and come directly to work and be here in half an hour,” says Guzman. “That would make it worth it.”

Prop 1A — the ballot measure that approved high-speed rail in California — forbids constructing a stop in Los Banos. It was a compromise to get environmental groups like the Sierra Club to support the proposition. According to them, a stop in Los Banos would lead to “excessive urban sprawl."

 

The closest stop for Nuemi Guzman will be Gilroy — about an hour’s drive from Los Banos.

“Not having it there puts a bigger question mark,” she says.

If she could save money taking the train, she says she’d drive to Gilroy and take high-speed rail to San Jose where she works. But at $40 dollars for a round-trip ticket, it may not actually be cheaper that just driving all the way.

Let’s do the math

 

Right now, Guzman spends about $300 dollars a month on gas driving to and from Gilroy, where she catches the bus. Her work covers her bus pass from Gilroy to San Jose. But there’s also car insurance and maintenance.

“We maintain that car like it’s gold,” says Guzman. “So we're on top of the oil changes, making sure everything is done: the wheels, the tires, everything is up to par because we're driving a lot and we're driving a long distance.”

But taking high-speed rail would cost her at least $800 dollars a month, plus the $300 and more she spends on gas to drive to the Gilroy station and back. Total cost? $1,100 dollars. That’s more than triple what she spends now.

Would paying more be worth it?

 

“What would make it worth it?” she asks. “I think having the Law Foundation cover it, that would make it worth it...Otherwise it’s not worth it.”

Many proponents of high-speed rail think that companies in Silicon Valley will subsidize passes for their workers, just like they may do for MUNI or Caltrain here in the Bay Area. Guzman also lives in a town where the median price for a four-bedroom home is $280,000. If she were to live in San Jose, she’d be paying almost five times as much.

Median home values, by county.
Credit Bay Area Council Economic Institute

“Paying for the commute is not as expensive as living in San Jose,” she explains. “So yeah, there's an upside to it because I could just take high-speed rail and be at work faster and be at home faster and not be paying a $3,500, $4,000 mortgage.”

For Guzman, taking the bullet train from Gilroy to San Jose and back could shave 40 minutes off a one-way commute. Guzman thinks a bit longer and considers her time.

“Thinking of it that way, because my biggest concern right now is that fact that we get home so late...So like cooking dinner for the kids and spending time with the kids in the evenings is hard. I think having that extra 40 minutes would be really nice, would it be worth it. Maybe, maybe.”

Maybe. But a lot of Bay Area commuters coming from Los Banos and the Central Valley will still be stuck in their cars as the trains blast by them on the highway. Guzman hopes the arrival of high-speed rail will force Los Banos to build a better bus line that can connect residents to the Gilroy stop.

“I remember years back they had been talking about having this bus that would drive people from Los Banos into Gilroy or San Jose and it was going to be really cheap,” she says. “And so we were all excited because then you don’t have to worry about commuting in your own car and it takes a little stress off of you, but it never happened.”

The High-Speed Rail Authority says one of the goals of the project is to strengthen local and regional transportation systems that will integrate with high-speed rail stops. But not everyone thinks its interaction with local transit is all positive.

To see how high-speed rail could affect Caltrain in the Bay Area, please read and listen to the final installment in this Crosscurrents special.