Personnel Profile: Carrie Pourvahidi

Carrie Pourvahidi is the deputy director of the California High Speed Rail Authority. She’s been with the agency for ten years, and frequently travels throughout the Central Valley in her work.

After years, High Speed Rail will finally be on the ballot in November.
It’s kind of like the stars have aligned. You’ve got your global warming issues, you’ve got your gas prices, you’ve got the congestion issues. There’s just so many things coming together that it just seems like, this is it, high speed rail is going to become a reality in California. It’s pretty exciting. There was a Field Poll done about a month ago, with 56 percent support and 30 percent against. That’s great.

When people are against it, what are their reasons?
It really comes down to this price tag. It is a $40+ billion project. But look at the alternative. If you didn’t do high speed rail, and you had to build freeways and build the airports out, you’re talking two to three times as much. So it is a bargain. We could have up to 117 million passengers annually by 2030. There are other detractors—“It’s not going where I want it to go, so I don’t want it at all.”

Speaking of that, why was the Pacheco Pass chosen over the Altamont?
The Pacheco Pass was chosen because it is our high speed rail corridor. It is where we can go 220 miles per hour. We also recognize there is a need in the Altamont Pass, but it’s more of a long-distance commuter type of need. We have actually proposed an environmental document where we look at making some improvements in that corridor.

What are your pet peeves when you travel?
My area is all the way from Sacramento to LA. Most of my travel is through the Central Valley, which I really like. I’m from the Midwest, so it’s kind of right up my alley. But traffic is a problem. Working in high speed rail, it would be great to be able to get on a train and go to work. My thing is I have to get in a car and drive to Fresno or drive down to Bakersfield. It’s just not very convenient for me to get around. Going into the more urbanized areas, it’s just the cost of lodging is usually within the state rates.

A few years ago I read an article where a German rail authority said that the used market for their high speed trains is ““Third World countries or the United States.”

Hahaha, isnt’ that nice? The United States is way behind. Japan’s had it for 40 years, France for 30 years, Germany, Italy, Spain. Iran’s talking about it, Mexico is talking about it. There are other countries that are bringing high speed rail online before the United States does.

I think because of our car culture, you have to get in your car everywhere you go. Where I live, I have to get in my car to go the grocery store. It’s not a walk-able community. It’s going to be a change in mindset, a change in the way people move around the state and within their communities.

What’s the attitude in the Central Valley?
They really want to have it. From the time they first heard about it ten years ago until today, they’re still excited about it even though we’ve had out peaks and valleys in getting the system going. They’re doing what they can at the community level to prepare for it.
In the Central Valley, they’re landlocked. What are their alternatives? They can get on a plane, but it’s very costly for them. Or they can get in the car. There is Amtrak that can get them there. But say you’re in Fresno, you have to go to Bakersfield on a train, then take a bus across the Tehachapis into LA’s Union Station. So it’s not the most convenient way to travel.

How long have you been with the Authority?
Ten years. I started with CalTrans. Actually, I was a student assistant. I have a finance background, did accounting, business and all that. I just kind of fell into it. It was exciting. I came onboard and got really enthused about high speed travel.

California started talking about high speed rail two decades ago. There was the LA/San Diego project, there was the LA/Palmdale project. In 1993, they put the Commission together. The commission looked at whether or not high speed rail was feasible. They determined it was feasible, and the authority was established in 1996. It’s been a long time. We’ve been thinking about it, planning for it. We’re now on the verge of implementing, which is exciting.

Does the project become more expensive with each delay?
You’re just looking at general inflation. Six percent inflation on a $40 billion project, that’s $1.5 to $2 billion a year. Every year we delay, the costs are going to go up. And that’s pretty conservative, because construction costs took such a big jump. You look at steel and concrete. It’s an international market, you’ve got China in there taking a lot of the resources.

If we would have built this ten years ago, it would have totally changed the economy of California. The whole look of the Central Valley wouldn’t be as impoverished as it is. You’d have the jobs and the housing and companies coming into the Central Valley because it’s an economical place to do business. But right now, they can’t, because they don’t have the mobility to get their employees in and out.

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