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Will Californians, like the Spanish, ride the bullet train?

KQED

Financial worries are driving the debate over California’s bullet train project: Will the state find the tens of billions of dollars needed to build an 800-mile high-speed rail system?

The state High-Speed Rail Authority puts the price tag at $45 billion. Last month, the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office said it may top $67 billion, and only about $13 billion seems guaranteed. Meanwhile, California must break ground next year if it wants to spend federal stimulus money on the project.

The financial discussion bleeds over to a related concern: If we build the bullet train, will anybody ride it? California is where urban sprawl was invented. Is the Golden State’s population anywhere near concentrated enough to make rail work?

Tim De Chant, a UC Berkeley-educated environmental scientist whose Per Square Mile blog explores issues of population density, took on the topic in a recent post.

His maps illustrate his premise that California’s population density is almost identical to that of Spain, which has invested heavily in high-speed rail.

“Given the success of Spain’s rail system, it stands to reason that California would be fertile ground for high-speed rail,” he writes.

Of course, if the measure is population density, Florida and Ohio would be fertile ground as well. Both of those states rejected billions in federal aid for bullet trains, fearing they just couldn’t make the projects pencil out.

De Chant’s analysis also doesn't address what might be termed marketing and cultural issues.

Europeans are accustomed to train travel.

Except in the Northeast corridor, Americans haven’t relied on rail to get around since the end of World War II, when everybody bought cars. Meanwhile, California is where the first American freeway was built, and where American car culture came to flower.

The Census Bureau has population density data. Worldatlas.com’s numbers are slightly different, but they’re in a searchable database. That data shows California's population density ranks 11th in the U.S., at 239 people per square mile. (It’s 13th if you include the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, as the Census Bureau does; the atlas doesn’t.)

The densest state is New Jersey, with 1,195 people per square mile. Of the 10 states that are denser than California, eight are in the Northeast and are served by Amtrak. The other two are Ohio and Florida, the states that were offered federal rail funds but refused.

If California were a nation, it would rank 83rd in terms of population density, behind Spain and Turkey (both 241).

Other European countries with bullet train service have significantly higher population densities: France (310), Germany (593) and the United Kingdom (656).

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