Out of Control Policy Blog

California High-Speed Rail Will Increase Pollution

The latest development in the California high-speed rail disaster concerns pollution. University of California-Berkeley professor Arpad Hovath explains that construction of the train will produce 10 million metric tons of Carbon Dioxide per year. Electricity for the California trains will come from coal fired power plants leading to more pollution. In order to negate this pollution, the train would need extremely high ridership in the Central Valley something that would be nearly impossible to achieve. California HSR will likely be more polluting than air travel. 

Further according to federal biologists and as reported in the Los Angeles Times:

Eleven endangered species, including the San Joaquin kit fox, would be affected, according to federal biologists. Massive emissions from diesel-powered heavy equipment could foul the already filthy air. Dozens of rivers, canals and wetlands fed from the rugged peaks of the Sierra Nevada would be crossed, creating other knotty issues.

Among the most difficult issues will be air quality, which is regulated across eight counties by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. The district worries that the construction project would exacerbate already problematic levels of nitrogen oxides, particulates and volatile compounds.

And other transportation researchers are raising complaints. According to University of Minnesota Transportation Engineering Chair David Levinson:

A study of BART (Lave 1976) estimated that more energy was used to build the system than will ever be saved by it.

Other modes are steadily getting cleaner, for instance fuel cell powered vehicles will emit only water and carbon dioxide. Any benefits from HSR depend on unproven forecasts. The energy for HSR must come from somewhere, if electric than probably coal or nuclear, both of which have some problems.

And project boosters have flip-flopped on skirting environmental reviews. Last month California high-speed rail chairman Dan Richard said that he was seeking environmental exemptions for the first 130-mile leg. Previously the chairman said he would not seek exemption from federal or state laws for the project. 

Let’s review the advantages and disadvantages of California HSR:

Disadvantages

  • The fourth business plan will save $30 billion compared to the third business plan. To reduce costs the new plan reduces train speeds near Los Angeles and San Francisco. In order to be successful, HSR has to be time-competitive with airlines. Reducing top speeds will significantly reduce the competitiveness of rail. While the Los Angeles and San Francisco transit networks are well developed by U.S. standards, they pale compared to many European and Asian networks. Cities need a quality transit network as a feeder system for a high-speed rail line. Additionally, the California plan’s ridership forecasts are based on inducing a large share of drivers to switch to high-speed rail. High-speed rail has not succeeded in luring drivers out of their vehicles anywhere in the world. Automobiles offer many benefits that trains cannot match such as flexibility and comfort. And considering all of these factors in other countries, the high-speed rail passenger mix has been 90% former flyers, 5% former drivers and 5% people who previously did not make the trip. 
  • The plan relies on billions of dollars of federal money that Republican House members are not going to appropriate.
  • The plan relies on funding from an untested cap and trade system. This revenue is supposed to be spent on environmental causes.
  • The agency believes some magical private investor will provide funds for the project. One advantage of the private sector is that it invests only in cost-effective projects. It would take real magic for investors to find California’s system a quality investment. 
  • The Los Angeles-San Francisco route is circuitous. The logical route would be a straight 380-mile track directly between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The 600-mile route serves residents in the central valley, not the intended big cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Obama administration mandated that service begin in the central valley far from Los Angeles or San Francisco. 
  • Building the train will increase pollution. Inducing travelers to ride trains may reduce air pollution but not nearly enough to overcome the pollution generated by rail construction. Governor Brown who has bent over backwards for environmentalists suddenly wants to abandon the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process.
  • The plan bases its congestion forecasts on major improvements in high-speed rail and no improvements in either automobile or plane technology. The report completely ignores Next-Gen technology in aviation and new quick, affordable bus services that link Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

Advantages:

  • Governor Jerry Brown leaves a legacy of degrading roads, failing schools, an insufficient power grid and a humongous budget deficit. I think this is another disadvantage but Governor Brown seems to be proud of this legacy.

Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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