California’s High-Speed Rail Fibs

In today’s The Wall Street Journal, Wendell Cox and Joseph Vranich write:

A few days ago, the California High Speed Rail Peer Review Group, an expert body mandated by state law, expressed serious doubts about the proposed Los Angeles-San Francisco rail system. It concluded that it “cannot at this time recommend that the legislature approve the appropriation of bond proceeds” because the project “represents an immense financial risk” to the state.

But hell hath no fury like a state agency scorned. The California High-Speed Rail Authority issued a quarrelsome response claiming that the rail system is, well, a bargain! The agency repeated its claim that without high-speed rail, Californians would pay more because the state would have to build equivalent transportation capacity through road and airport expansions costing about $171 billion, or between $53 billion and $73 billion more than the $98 billion to $118 billion estimated cost of a rail line.

The constant refrain that it’s “more expensive not to build the rail line” is specious. But it deserves further explanation because of the light it sheds on tricks used to justify other ill-conceived projects to an unsuspecting public.

Cox and Vranich go on to make many of the arguments first made in their 2008 Reason Foundation study of the California high-speed rail plan:

The claimed cost of airport expansion is bloated, too. Bullet train proponents assume a very small average plane size into the future, as if airlines wouldn’t use larger planes—such as the latest generation single-aisle Boeing 737s or Airbus 321s—to meet demand. Even without high-speed rail, in other words, no new runways or gates would have to be built beyond what will be needed anyway, and the assumed billions of dollars required to expand airports is just another unsubstantiated claim by rail promoters.

These absurdities aren’t surprising. A study we prepared for the Reason Foundation in 2008—”The California High-Speed Rail Proposal: A Due Diligence Report”—showed that high-speed rail proponents had overstated costs for alternative highway and airport capacities by a factor of more than 60.

There is more that is wrong with the California high-speed rail project. The Alice-in-Wonderland plan is based on greatly exaggerated ridership projections, hallucinatory promises of billions in private investment pouring into the system, and the expectation that the now-canceled federal high-speed rail program will magically provide many billions more.

Full column here.

Reason’s transportation research and commentary.

Adrian Moore

Adrian Moore, Ph.D., is vice president of policy at Reason Foundation, a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.