California’s next rail plan needs to consider the state’s population decline and work trends
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California’s next rail plan needs to consider the state’s population decline and work trends

Rail projects that were conceived in a time of growing population and higher utilization may no longer make sense.

Transportation planners in California are working on a new “2022 State Rail Plan” that they claim will provide a “long-term vision for an integrated, cohesive statewide rail system that offers efficient passenger and freight service, supports California’s economy, and helps achieve critical climate goals.” However, with California’s previously expected population growth failing to materialize, Californians’ ongoing reliance on automobiles, the COVID-19 pandemic, and many people avoiding mass transit, the state’s transportation and policy planners need to make major changes to the assumptions and projections that were part of their previous 2018 State Rail Plan. Without major alterations, state and local transportation agencies risk building costly rail projects that are likely to fail to achieve their stated policy goals, improve mobility, or offer taxpayers a return on their investment.

Many of California’s transportation projects were conceived at a time when steady population growth still seemed plausible. For example, the state’s expected population growth was one of the major justifications for the 2008 high-speed rail project approved by voters in 2008. CNBC quoted the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s vice chair on this theme in 2010:

“California’s population is going to be 50 million by the year 2030,” says the Vice Chair for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, Tom Umberg. “In order to effectively transport folks from north to south, south to north, we need an alternate form of transportation, and that’s the high-speed rail.”

The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s (CHSRA’s) 2012 Business Plan elaborated on this theme, stating:

The state cannot continue meeting the demands of 50 to 60 million residents by taking a “more of the same” approach. California’s projected population growth will necessitate, and support, viable new transportation alternatives. Keeping pace with this anticipated growth will require major new investments in state transportation infrastructure.

But since these assessments were offered, California’s population growth unexpectedly slowed and then actually declined.  According to population estimates from California’s Department of Finance (DoF), the state’s annual population growth slowed from 0.93% in the fiscal year ending July 1, 2012, to just 0.14% in the year ending July 1, 2019. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the state’s population shrank: DoF’s July 1, 2021, estimate of 39.37 million people living in California is below the 39.54 million people who were counted in the 2020 Census report.

Rather than reach the 50-60 million population level that CHSRA assumed, it is now plausible to question whether California will exceed 40 million residents in the coming years given low birth rates, migration to other states, and reduced international immigration to the state.

The combination of negative population growth, and, more importantly, changing travel preferences arising from the COVID-19 pandemic are impacting the utilization of rail transit. Ridership on three intrastate California Amtrak routes (the Pacific Surfliner, Capitol Corridor, and San Joaquins) declined from an aggregate of 5.6 million riders in the railroad’s 2019 fiscal year (ended Sept. 30, 2019) to 1.6 million in FY 2021, a 71% decline. Business travel, something that was supposed to be a mainstay for the state’s high-speed rail system, is being especially hard hit as many meetings and conferences shift to online formats.

Further plans for new rail services often involve ideas for extending the state’s high-speed rail system beyond its eventual terminus in Anaheim. High-speed rail service in the Los Angeles-San Diego (LOSSAN) corridor may eventually be able to attract substantial ridership given the region’s population density. Notably, San Diego County’s population trends have been stronger than those elsewhere along the California Coast. But there have been massive delays in constructing what was supposed to be the phase one San Francisco-to-Anaheim high-speed line, which currently lacks a concrete plan for reaching Los Angeles let alone Anaheim or San Diego.

The state’s declining population may also be affecting local mass transit services. According to data from the Federal Transit Administration, passenger trips on San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System declined 24% between November 2019 and November 2021. For Los Angeles County Metro rail services, the decline during that period was 38% and San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit’s (BART) ridership fell 69% over the same period.

In the early days of the pandemic, some planners expected a sharp rebound in transit usage. But, now that the COVID-19 pandemic is entering its third year, new travel and work routines are becoming cemented in place. Employees have become accustomed to remote work, and, in the current tight labor market, many have the bargaining power to maintain the option to work from home at least a few days each week.

It is in this environment of stagnant population and remote work that California’s 2022 State Rail Plan will appear later this year. And some projects that might have once seemed appropriate, may no longer pencil out. The 2018 plan, for example, advocated the construction of a second rail tunnel under the San Francisco Bay, stating:

BART trains are running at capacity and at crush-capacity during peak commute hours, and Caltrain reaches bi-directional maximum capacity during the peak. As the regional population grows, continued strain is put on the transportation system; and as the median income and housing prices grow exponentially in the Bay Area core, lower income workers are forced to move farther away from their jobs, increasing their dependency on a congested transportation system. Although these intertwined problems contribute to the State’s support of a second Transbay crossing, there are additional megaregional and statewide implications of not building a second crossing.

The case for this project, with an estimated price tag of $29 billion, has weakened considerably since 2018. If planners choose to include it in the 2022 Rail Plan, they should explain the scenarios under which existing BART and Caltrain capacity will prove inadequate or how the projects would meet ridership forecasts if current trends continue.

In Southern California, Los Angeles Metro’s 2020 Long Range Transportation Plan calls for adding more than 100 miles of new rail track over a 30-year period. Among the initiatives proposed are a $6 billion, 19-mile light rail line connecting downtown Los Angeles and the city of Artesia in the southeastern portion of Los Angeles County, and new rail service between the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles International Airport, which could cost $18 billion.

Although these projects may not be as ambitious as the second BART tunnel in Northern California, they face tougher demographic realities. Los Angeles County’s population is falling faster than that of either San Diego or the Bay Area, with the county down 1.7% from its population peak in 2017.

Rail and other mass transit projects that were conceived during a time of growing population and reliant on higher ridership and utilization forecasts may no longer make sense in today’s environment. The 2022 State Rail Plan needs to reflect California’s population trends and should provide cost-benefit analyses showing how effectively proposed projects would achieve their stated goals.