Gov. Jerry Brown’s latest budget magic trick seeks to find a way to pay for the proposed California high-speed rail system. Brown wants to shift money from the state greenhouse gas reduction program to the train project so the California High-Speed Rail Authority can spend $300 million from the state’s cap-and-trade revenues next year, $400 million the year after that, and then the rail system would get approximately one-third of cap-and-trade revenues every year thereafter.
CHSRA has recently been touting an internal estimate that the rail system will reduce “carbon dioxide equivalent” emissions, a measure of the amount of greenhouse gases in the air, by 4.3 million metric tons by 2030, with an additional one million metric ton reduction annually thereafter. But a 2010 study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley concluded that it would take 71 years for the state’s high-speed rail system just to negate the emissions that will be created by the system’s construction alone. Even CHSRA’s own analysis indicates that once the high-speed rail system is operational, it would contribute a relatively minor amount of emission reductions to the state at best.
While the goal of high-speed rail is to displace travelers from carbon-intensive modes of transportation, like cars and planes, CHSRA’s plan glosses over the fact that cars will continue to become cleaner and more fuel efficient in the future and that tens of thousands of acres of farm land will be fallowed to provide for the train’s necessary rights-of-way. Replacing crops with concrete eliminates a valuable carbon sink in the Central Valley where emissions are of particular concern.
Further, there has been little review of carbon intensity for all of the electricity that will be generated and used to move these trains. Despite assurances that wetlands will be restored and trees will be planted to offset the rail system’s emissions, it will be challenging to make the high-speed rail system carbon neutral, let alone significantly reduce carbon emissions.
In 2012, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office questioned high-speed rail’s role in the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, noting the cost of a high-speed rail system relative to other strategies.
The money that California was hoping to get from the federal government or the private sector to build the high-speed rail route simply isn’t going appear anytime soon. And Gov. Brown's plans for robbing cap-and-trade funds to pay for the train system’s construction can’t be justified on sound environmental or fiscal grounds.
Lance Christensen is director of the pension reform project at Reason Foundation. This column was originally published in The Orange County Register.