“If your friends ask you what’s happening with that High-Speed Rail, you can tell them construction has started.” That’s what the Northern California Regional Director for the California High-Speed Rail Authority told us the other week during an annual CEQA Conference in San Francisco. So I am pleased to report, friends, that at long last, work has begun.

The first phase of construction is relatively limited – a 29-mile segment for a line planned to stretch over hundreds of miles. The work underway may be more aptly described as “pre-construction,” as itinvolves a good deal of clearing and demolition. Regardless, it’s a significant milestone in a project – correct that, a megaproject (or “project on steroids” as I heard it described) – that Governor Jerry Brown had proposed during his first stint as Governor in the 1980s.

Now, over three decades later, a building is coming down, earth is being excavated, and money is being spent to pave the way for a rail system that come 2029, will take me from near my office in downtown San Francisco to Los Angeles in just under three hours, in a train that can travel over 200 miles per hour, for a system that expects to traverse over 800 miles – all for an estimated $68 billion (at least for the time being). The project is so “mega” that for environmental review purposes, it has been divided into 9 distinct projects corresponding to 9 city-to-city segments that constitute the rail line – each of which would be a major project on its own. 

With all the debate over California’s High-Speed Rail – the route, the funding, the environmental lawsuits, to name just a few issues – one question nags at me: Will we get out of our cars to ride this thing? A conference presenter described how High-Speed Rail in France and Spain resulted in significant shifts in user modal choice. There was about a 25% reduction in air travel along new High-Speed Rail routes. But the move away from cars was far less dramatic – only 7 and 8%. And there, a train ridership already existed along those routes pre-High-Speed Rail.

California isn’t Europe. Californians love our cars (especially now when gas is cheap). But having never claimed driving as one of my California birthrights and as someone who opted to not to own a car for most of my adult life – even during one full year of a three-year stint in Los Angeles – I know very well how useful and frequently necessary a car is. 

One report I’ve seen since the conference reflects how much our State was built for cars, projecting tens of millions of fewer High-Speed Rail riders than what the State has estimated. While ridership estimates are sure to remain volatile, getting us out of our cars is a truly formidable challenge probably more so here than in most parts of the developed world. But like a lot of California’s transformative projects, it’s a challenge worth embracing. In these days of mixed-use developments, transit priority projects, and greenhouse gas reduction aspirations, I’m not going to be the only one riding this train.