Being Taken for a Ride on High-Speed Rail in California

In my latest commentary, I once again tackle the boondoggle that is the California high-speed rail project, specifically, the most recent version of what passes for a business plan from the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA).

When the High-Speed Rail Authority recently released yet another version of its purported business plan, it was just another day in the world of the ever-changing high-speed rail plans and assumptions made by the Authority and its backers. The fourth incarnation of the plan relies upon sharing tracks with commuter trains in both Los Angeles and the Bay Area in order to trim estimated costs from $98.5 billion to “only” $68.4 billion—still more than 50% more expensive than the plan voters thought they were approving in November 2008. But, as the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) observed, this plan makes no more sense than any of the previous ones.

The LAO analysis concludes,

We find that HSRA has not provided sufficient detail and justification to the Legislature regarding its plan to build a high-speed train system. Specifically, funding for the project remains highly speculative and important details have not been sorted out. We recommend the Legislature not approve the Governor’s various budget proposals to provide additional funding for the project.

The vast majority of the expected funding continues to be wishful thinking. As I relate in my article,

As with every other attempt at a plan, the latest effort from the CHSRA lacks any basis in reality. Once again, most of the funding is to come from unidentified federal and private-sector sources that almost certainly will not materialize. In fact, 83.2 percent of the project’s proposed funding is unaccounted for, including $38.6 billion the CHSRA hopes to receive in federal funds (in addition to the approximately $3.5 billion in federal stimulus and transportation funds that has already been allocated), $13.1 billion expected from private investors, and $5.2 billion to come from other sources such as local governments.

In response to such criticisms, CHSRA Chairman Dan Richards argued that it is simply common practice for transportation projects to go forward without knowing from where the money will come. “I spent 12 years on the [Bay Area Rapid Transit] board in the transit world; we never knew where all of the money was coming from,” Richards said. “Our colleagues in Southern California just adopted a $540 billion regional transportation plan for the Southland, for the next 20 years, same time period we’re talking about here. They don’t know where all of the money is coming from.” Added Richards, “It is just part and parcel of the transportation world that people don’t know these things now.”

If ever there was a window into the mindset of a government central planner, this is it. So the excuse for such irresponsibility and carelessness with scarce taxpayer dollars is the notion that “Everyone else (in government) is doing it!” Besides, who needs to know minor details like how something is going to be paid for when your state faces yearly multi-billion-dollar deficits?

Yet CHSRA board member Mike Rossi calls the new business plan “credible, reasonable, and transparent.” Many of the high-speed rail planners are clever people, so it is hard to believe that they could be so divorced from reality. There are many special interests involved in a project of this scope, however (which is yet another reason why such things should be left to the voluntary decisions of people in a free market, rather than forced down people’s throats through the political process), so perhaps it is simply an attempt to intentionally delude taxpayers whom they hope will be too apathetic or uncritical to notice otherwise.

One of the things that continually amazes me is how basic assumptions such as the cost of the project and the estimated ridership—which affects everything from how much revenue the system will generate to how much it will affect traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions—can change so dramatically, so quickly, and yet the supporters of high-speed rail cling to the project with religious fervor and never question how these seemingly arbitrarily-determined numbers affect the viability of such a large project. As I argued in my column,

The CHSRA and many advocates of high-speed rail have demonstrated that they are beyond reason, despite all the facts that contradict their hopes and assumptions. High-speed rail advocacy has become more of a religious crusade than a policy position. Avoiding the facts stacking against this project is how cost estimates can triple, then be reduced by one-third. It’s how ridership estimates can magically plummet to one-third of their original estimates (see this CalWatchdog article for a good summary on the project’s changing assumptions). It’s how major decisions such as changing from dedicated high-speed rail tracks to tracks shared with slower commuter trains on both ends of the system can be made. And yet with all these arbitrary changes, high-speed rail acolytes have not batted an eye or even questioned how the plan can still be considered feasible, much less profitable.

Moreover, the bond measure (Prop. 1A) that voters narrowly passed back in 2008 requires that a trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the high-speed train system take no more than 2 hours, 40 minutes. That probably would not have happened even under the older plans, but seems to be pure fantasy now that the high-speed trains will have to share tracks with slower commuter trains at both ends of the system. As Quentin Kopp, former California state senator and CSHRA chairman who was a leading figure in pushing for the passage of Prop. 1A and the creation of the CHSRA, admitted of the new plan, “This isn’t high-speed rail.” Added Kopp, “High-speed trains have separated tracks. That’s how they could achieve speeds and travel times promised to voters in the 2008 ballot measure.”

The high-speed rail project is such a disaster on so many fronts—economically, politically, even environmentally—that one can only hope that the plug will be pulled before California wastes more billions of dollars it does not have. At the very least, voters should have the chance to re-vote on such a project that is so different from the one put before them in 2008. Barring that, it will be up to the voters to use the initiative process to kill the high-speed rail system in order save themselves from more financial waste and abuse.

See my full article here.

Adam Summers is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets. He has written extensively on privatization, government reform, law and economics, and various other political and economic topics.