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High-Speed Rail Takes Californians for a Ride

Illustration by Rob Matthews Close

Illustration by Rob Matthews

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Illustration by Rob Matthews

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has a serious public-relations hurdle: how to sell its proposed Los Angeles-to-San Francisco bullet train without the word “boondoggle” attached.

But the rail authority’s latest compromise plan to solve this problem -- with its focus on building the system in a “better, faster, cheaper” manner -- not only doesn’t fix the system’s fundamental flaws, it may plant the seeds of its destruction.

In November 2008, California voters -- notorious for approving huge spending projects, regardless of the state’s budget problems -- approved Proposition 1A, which earmarked almost $10 billion in general-obligation bonds to build a comprehensive rail system whose cost was estimated at the time at $35 billion to $42 billion.

Budget estimates have since soared to $98 billion, and efforts have focused on a “let’s just get started” route linking two lower-density cities in the state’s Central Valley, Fresno and Bakersfield. But rail advocates sold the public on Asian-style bullet trains as way to connect Southern California to Bay Area metropolises, not as a “train to nowhere,” as it has been called, in the state’s agricultural heartland.

Furthermore, funding for the system became even less believable after Congress killed the Obama administration’s rail plan, which would have sent a few billion dollars toward California.

Suspect Savings

Governor Jerry Brown and Democratic leaders claim that not building the system is more costly than building it (based on inflated estimates of coming transportation needs), so they continue to move forward -- pushing out the authority’s old leadership and making changes that claim to slash $30 billion in costs and that would link the Central Valley to Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. Critics argue that the savings seem to have magically appeared -- without sufficient detail explaining where they will come from.

Even some architects of the original plan argue that many of the changes are in direct violation of the initiative that spawned the rail authority. For instance, officials in the wealthy suburbs south of San Francisco have opposed the proposal because they fear having 200-mile-per-hour trains speeding through their communities on viaducts -- concerns echoed by some Los Angeles-area officials, as well.

The revised plan calls for the system to share Caltrain rail lines from San Jose to San Francisco and Metrolink and Amtrak lines from Los Angeles to Anaheim -- a so-called “blended” approach. There would be far fewer trains running, as well.

But these compromises that require riders to transfer between trains as they approach urban areas -- even if this inconvenience is supposed to be temporary -- conflict with the specific mandates that the Legislature placed in the initiative, leading to the possibility that the courts might kill the plan.

“The mandates in the law are considerable,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “They require that any initial segment has to use high-speed trains. Money for each operating segment needs to be in hand before construction starts. Passengers must be able to board in Los Angeles and arrive in San Francisco without changing trains. As many as 12 trains per hour are supposed to run in each direction and the system has to operate without taxpayer subsidies.”

If the system is built according to the new blueprint, a South Orange County rider heading for a weekend jaunt in San Francisco will need to drive to a parking lot in Anaheim, jump on a train to Los Angeles, then transfer to a train that meanders through the populated areas of the Central Valley before heading to San Jose.

Faster by Air

The rider will transfer to another train, operating side by side with commuter trains, a journey that undermines the rapid-trip vision sold to voters.

Even in the best-possible scenario, the high-speed-rail trip would take almost twice as long as California’s current high-speed system -- Southwest Airlines Co. (LUV), which offers reasonably priced, frequent flights between most of the state’s major cities. Many critics believe a train trip of two hours and 40 minutes from Los Angeles to San Francisco is an impossibility.

The high-speed option suffers from the same delusions common in most rail designs: They are not viewed primarily as a transportation system, but as something that will transform society. I’ve got nothing against rail per se, but any system needs to be evaluated on the costs and benefits of providing improved transportation based on how we live, not on how the planners would like us to live (that is, being less car- dependent).

“This project, like the state highway system or the water project, will transform the California economy and help it remain one of the most innovative in the world,” said rail board member Michael Rossi, in the language typical of those who see rail as a giant jobs program. Sure, spending billions of dollars to build the line would create jobs and wealth for some sectors of the economy, and make unions happy, but it would take money from elsewhere -- an economic truth rarely recognized in Sacramento, California’s capital.

Comparisons to Western water projects are common, but a stretch. Had it not been for Herculean efforts to dam the Colorado River, and build state-water projects, Los Angeles might not have become a metropolis. California already has modern transportation systems -- airlines, highways and commuter rail -- and at best high-speed trains would provide additional choices. It will not be transformative.

Depends on Debt

The system depends on federal, state and local funds, and governments at all levels are struggling under debt levels that are not sustainable. The idea that the system will be built for the current predicted cost and that it will actually provide operating revenue is dubious given the experience of most major transportation systems built across the globe, where 50 percent and even 100 percent cost overruns aren’t the exception but the rule.

“There is no future stream of revenue, nor is there any prospect for profits,” Adrian Moore, vice president of the Reason Foundation, told me. “It’s a complete farce. No private investments of any sort will go into this.” Governor Brown points to the state’s cap-and-trade system, which imposes fees on greenhouse-gas producers, as the new source to fund his dream.

But, as the libertarian writer Wayne Lusvardi argues, there’s something disturbing about transferring “billions of dollars in higher costs for everything in California that has to be manufactured or trucked anywhere” to a rail project that “will take riders away from commercial airlines.” Some liberal critics fear that the train line will shift money from programs that help the poor to a system designed to serve the upper-middle class.

Maybe those are predictable complaints that will plague all proposed spending projects, but Californians of any political persuasion should wonder why a state that can’t even find the money to pay its own bills is busy spending tens of billions of dollars on a rail project driven more by politics than demand.

(Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He is based in Sacramento, California. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.

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To contact the writer of this article: Steven Greenhut in Sacramento, California, at steven.greenhut@franklincenterhq.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.

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