Don’t Let the Reason Foundation Railroad California

Nov 30th, 2009 | Posted by

One of the most persistent HSR deniers and opponents of the California HSR project has been the Reason Foundation. Funded in part by oil and auto companies, they were behind the notorious Cox-Vranich report released last year in an effort to defeat Prop 1A. We thoroughly debunked that report and voters passed Prop 1A. But that hasn’t stopped the Reason Foundation from trying to kill HSR anyway.

Their latest effort came in Sunday’s San Diego Union-Tribune, with an op-ed by Adam Summers claiming that “state voters were railroaded” into voting for Prop 1A and that the project is an unaffordable boondoggle.

It’s some of their rather typical nonsense, that HSR isn’t going to have the ridership, that we can’t afford to build it, on and on. I’ll debunk some of their specific claims below, but first we need to consider why they are renewing their attack and why it matters.

Right now we face a key decision point in our state’s and our nation’s economic policy. There is a rising amount of deficit hysteria out there, designed to scare people into thinking that because we have increased the state and federal deficit during this recession, we’re positioning ourselves for doom unless we cut back on spending – and that includes cutting funding for high speed rail.

This is little more than the new Hoovers who fought Prop 1A seeing a new opportunity to try and kill the project and seizing another weapon to try it. And this IS a good opportunity for them. Already the Obama Administration is making noises about across-the-board spending cuts out of a misguided fear about those deficits.

At the same time, the worsening unemployment crisis create a strong countervailing pressure on officials in Sacramento and Washington, DC to resist the deficit hawks and instead direct government policy toward spending to provide the jobs and recovery that we need. The $50 billion in state applications for federal stimulus funds would seem to suggest that appetite for HSR in particular remains strong.

And so the Reason Foundation makes their move, to try and influence the debate against high speed rail spending. The op-ed is a mishmash of the usual criticisms:

To put it mildly, voters were, ahem, railroaded during the November 2008 election when the high-speed rail bond measure narrowly passed and the so-called business plan for the project was conveniently delayed for months until days after the election. That $10 billion bond was merely a down payment on a system expected to cost a total of $45 billion, but even this figure is grossly understated, as observers of Los Angeles’s Blue Line light rail, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, Boston’s infamous “Big Dig” and virtually every other large government infrastructure project can attest. A September 2008 Reason Foundation report estimated that the system would actually cost between $65 billion and $81 billion.

Of course, the business plan was delayed due to the state budget crisis, everyone knew the $10 billion bond was a down payment, many HSR projects have been delivered on-time and on-budget, and of course, that September 2008 Reason Foundation study was the one we debunked last year as relying on false and incorrect information.

The ridership estimate is crucial because it affects many other assumptions – from ticket prices to reductions in traffic congestion and emissions – and it is even more flawed. The rail authority assumes that between 88 million and 117 million people will ride the trains each year. To put that in perspective, consider that the entire annual ridership of the Amtrak system, which includes 21,000 miles of routes and more than 500 destinations in 46 states, is less than 29 million. Amtrak’s high-speed Acela Express service, which runs from Washington, D.C., to New York City to Boston, serves a larger and denser market than the planned California system and only commands a ridership of a little more than 3 million passengers a year.

What they don’t tell you is that the ridership projections are for full buildout in the year 2030, and assume population growth in the state. Further, our system will be faster and more frequent than the Acela. The use of other Amtrak lines, including long-distance trains, is absurd as they are not build for high ridership, although Amtrak’s #2 and #3 busiest trains are California’s Pacific Surfliner and Capitol Corridor. These flawed comparisons and incomplete statements aren’t designed to prove a numeric point, but to reinforce an assumed hostility to passenger rail among a population that is used to seeing it as a fringe activity.

Even if the project’s assumptions weren’t so flawed and the system could somehow work as planned, California simply cannot afford it. The bubble gum and sealing wax the Legislature used to plug the state’s budget holes are leaking left and right, growing the deficit to at least $21 billion. California has the worst credit rating in the nation, making the issuing of bonds extremely expensive, and it can’t afford the debt service for the $10 billion in high-speed rail bonds already approved, much less for the tens of billions of dollars extra that will be required to complete the system. At a time when the state is struggling to fund its core programs and priorities, it is lunacy to divert $650 million a year to subsidize a very small portion of people traveling between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

As I wrote at Calitics yesterday, our state’s debt problems are very real. But there are ways to solve it without sacrificing our future by killing off a project that is vital to future prosperity. In fact, HSR is an essential piece of that solution. The best way to pay back debt is to generate more income to service that debt. And that’s where HSR comes in, by creating hundreds of thousands of desperately needed jobs and generating significant savings through energy independence.

The Reason Foundation’s attack is a typical fear, uncertainty, and doubt campaign they’re waging. As we know, HSR around the world (and including in the United States) has no problem attracting riders, has no problem generating operating surpluses, and is essential to the state’s economic recovery through the jobs it would create and the green dividend it would deliver.

Lynn Schenk, California High Speed Rail Authority board member from San Diego, rebutted the Reason op-ed in the same opinion page yesterday, making some of the same points I did.

The real question is whether Californians’ really do want to build for the 21st century, or whether they are willing to embrace the Reason Foundation’s “lower our horizons and suffer” argument and prolong an economy that benefits their oil and auto company donors but has already hurt pretty much everyone else.

I am confident that Californians will continue to support HSR. But as we saw in Texas in the 1990s and Florida earlier this decade, public support for HSR projects is not a given. It has to be consistently maintained and cultivated. The HSR deniers, led by the Reason Foundation, aren’t going to stop. Neither can we.

  1. AndyDuncan
    Nov 30th, 2009 at 09:41

    If I were going to pick public infrastructure projects to show why HSR isn’t a good idea, I wouldn’t have picked two road projects. Nor would I have picked the Blue Line, which at $39m/mile wasn’t cheap, but is the second busiest light rail line in the country (behind only the boston green line, which is really multiple lines), and who’s biggest issue is that they didn’t spend ENOUGH money when they built it and probably should have been built as heavy metro or at least fully grade separated.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    Agreed, though as I said, their choice of examples aren’t intended to be intellectually coherent. They’re instead meant to trigger a pre-existing idea in the heads of many California suburbanites – that mega-projects will always exceed their costs and therefore aren’t worth doing.

    Andrew Reply:

    That is for damn sure. Something has to be done eventually about grade-separating the Blue Line, probably putting the street running segments in South LA and Long Beach underground because they are incredibly slow.

    AndyDuncan Reply:

    They definitely need to underground the long beach sections, they currently can’t even run as many trains as they would like into downtown LGB due to street running and how that screws up traffic. They should also extend the tunnel from 7th/metro south for quite a ways, past the washington turns where the train slows to about 1.2mph, and as far as makes sense and then grade separate the rest with aerials, trenches, tunnels, undercrossings, whatever is needed. The capacity improvements that would bring, combined with the increased speed and decreased headways would be worthwhile. That line took longer than expected to reach it’s ridership projections, but it is now exceeding them.

    Unfortunately, “improving the blue line” is probably going to take a back seat to dragging new lines. The capacity problems are only going to get worse when the connector is finished and through-running trains are possible. Perhaps that will convince people to cough up the money for full grade separation.

    $40b in measure R funds sounds like a lot, but it’s not going to be enough to go around.

  2. Dave
    Nov 30th, 2009 at 10:00

    I would have killed for HSR yesterday when it took me 9 Hours & 15 Minutes to get from L.A. to the East Bay on I-5. Makes me want to slap someone when they say that the ridership is no their, it is. I know it was holiday traffic but I did take another trip to L.A two weeks ago and it was still pretty heavy. Although last time we didn’t stop to a standstill in the middle of nowhere on I-5, though the first trip we did have to slow down because two lanes apparently isn’t enough.

    I could see that H-99 was also at a stand still when it diverted out from I-5 and I laughed at them not knowing that we would be in the same situation just 2 minutes later. We where in traffic from the I-5/H-99 Junction all the way to the I-5/1-580 Junction, Horrible. I don’t want to travel for a long while.

    Build HSR in California and I will ride it no doubt so I can actually sleep this time.

  3. Missiondweller
    Nov 30th, 2009 at 11:11

    The Reason Foundation has left reason behind.

    I am a fiscal conservative, and although its understandable that people are concerned about the current state of California’s budget and the economy, this has no relation to long-term infra-structure needs.

    First of all, we’re not talking about a short term building project. By the time the main planning work is completed we are likely to be looking at a recovering economy by 2011. I seem to recall this being the earliest optimistic estimate on when “ground can be broken” on the project.

    Secondly, I am unaware of Reason or any other group debunking the study indicating that without this project we will spend many times more money expanding both freeways and airports to meet the future strains of an increased population. Unless some group can credibly make the case that California’s population will remain the same or decline, the reasoning for CAHSR has not changed.

    It does make the point however that we need to continue to remind Californians as to why the project is needed.

  4. Rafael
    Nov 30th, 2009 at 12:10

    In western democracies, ballots are secret for a reason. Voters uncomfortable with the absence of an updated business plan on Nov 4, 2008 had the option of voting NO. About 48% did. However, about 52% voted YES anyhow because they realized that HSR is very long term investment in the quality of life of California residents. Elections have consequences.

    One past form, any tracks that get built with public money will be around for decades, perhaps even a century. Are they going to be nose-bleed expensive to build? Yes. So are the alternatives, both financially and in terms of quality of life. The cost of doing nothing – or even of delay – is not zero.

    Will there be construction nuisance and permanent impacts? Yes. And you know what, those who weren’t foolish enough to buy residential property abutting an active railroad line are actually sort of ok with the trade-offs involved. They may be too polite to say so in public, but caveat emptor applies to everybody, not just to poor people. Active railroad corridors are always subject to change, including corridor widening via eminent domain, grade separations, electrification, increased speed and increased traffic volume. All of these risks was there when those individuals purchased their properties and are presumed to have factored into the transaction price. Don’t blame the rest of us if you overpaid. It’s never fun when risks actually materialize but to claim that the HSR project amounts to “railroading” anyone is patent nonsense. It’s not as if it came out of the blue.

    Will the ridership projections pan out? According to SNCF, who know a thing or two about running HSR, the conservative end of the range is quite realistic, though it might take a few years longer to reach than CHSRA claims. A majority of voters evidently understood that forecasts are always wrong anyhow, especially the ones about the future. What appealed to them is the concept of an alternative to awful long drives and equally awful short-hop flights. In addition, the experience of oil prices rallying to $140/barrel in just 3 years was a painful wake-up call.

    Voters also understood the importance of expanded and interconnected public transportation at the local and regional scale, approving sales tax hikes in LA, Santa Clara, Marin and Sonoma counties – in an economy that was already nosediving, no less. They want transportation options and those cost money. So be it.

    Conservatives are implacably and reflexively opposed to tax hikes, preferring to finance foreign military adventures, sci-fi weapons programs and asset bubbles on the next generation’s credit card rather than their own. How very prudent of them. One reason young people in California by and large supported and still support the HSR project is that it will at deliver tangible civilian assets. Other countries have managed to deal with terrorism without starting unwinnable wars half-way around the world and, they have done so at a fraction of the cost in terms of both lives lost and treasure spent. They also managed to avoid completely taking their eye off their economies in the process. Not everything those pesky ferreners say and do is foolish.

  5. Arthur Dent
    Nov 30th, 2009 at 18:16

    “Of course, the business plan was delayed due to the state budget crisis,”

    That lame excuse is as tired as they come. The Legislature gave fair warning in January, 2008, that they expected a reasonable business plan in order to put Prop 1A on the ballot. That was back when the CHSRA’s funding was not in question. Neither party came through in the end – the CHSRA squandered the money on some rather expensive video propaganda then wah-wahed that their money source dried up, and the Legislature turned their head as they voted to approve putting Prop 1A on the ballot without any Business Plan in sight.

    The HSR cheerleaders got lucky while CA voters got screwed.

    Dave Reply:

    This video proppaganda that you speak of was already done and complete one year earlier, two years from now in summer 2007 so your arguement falls apart.

  6. bossyman15
    Nov 30th, 2009 at 18:46

    the link “rebutted the Reason op-ed” does not work. just letting ya know.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    Thanks, fixed.

  7. wu ming
    Nov 30th, 2009 at 19:05

    there’s a tremendous pent-up demand for fast, point-to-point statewide high speed rail. i put off visiting friends and family in so cal because it’s too much of a headache to drive down there or shlep the family and kid through the airport just for a weekend. a couple hours to and fro on the train for a reasonable price, and people like me become part of those projected ridership stats.

    everyone i’ve talked to wants to get this train built. the only concerns i hear are people worrying that it’ll never get built because of money, NIMBYs, gutless pols, etc.

    as an aside, people who don’t believe in raising taxes, and spend like drunken sailors on the military aren’t deficit hawks, they just don’t want the government to help regular people. the folks at reason aren’t interested in deficits when it’s conservatives running up the tab.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    Oh totally. I’d visit my family in Orange County much more often with high speed rail. The pent up demand is absolutely there.

  8. JimSF
    Nov 30th, 2009 at 23:28

    Everyone will travel more around the state with hsr. They just will because it’ll so fast and so simple.

  9. Ben
    Dec 1st, 2009 at 07:35

    The Reason Foundation is so biased as not be be credible at all. The Reason Foundation is so quick to criticize any spending on rail yet Robert Poole from the Reason Foundation lavishes praise on the Orange County toll roads ( despite the latter needing a $1B federal bailout last year.

    In a discussion earlier this year on National Journal’s website about whether transit systems should get Federal subsidies to cover operating costs, Robert Poole from the Reason Foundation argued very strongly against the idea. According to Robert Poole, there is no national interest in covering the operating costs for transit systems. Poole writes, “At a time of unprecedented federal deficits, the idea of expanding the federal government’s spending into what is basically a local issue requires a very high level of justification. The others who have posted on this blog, arguing in favor of federal funding for transit operating costs, have failed to meet that standard.”

    According to Poole, subsidies for other modes of transportation are fine, however. Just over six months ago Robert Poole had no problem arguing for generous subsidies for private aircraft owners. In a posting on the Reason Foundation’s website in October 2008 ( ), Robert Poole argues for a $5,000 subsidy per pilot to equip general aviation aircraft with NextGen avionics.

    It is hard to take someone serious when there are such glaring inconsistencies. According to Poole, government funding for transit is a huge distortion of the free market but government subsidies for aircraft owners is fine. I guess it depends on who funds and donates to your foundation.

  10. Eisenberg
    Dec 1st, 2009 at 16:19

    I flew from Long Beach to SFO and back to LAX, taking Jet Blue one way and Southwest the next. Though both airlines did a good job despite the holiday weekend, it was still a long trip. On the way there we got a taxi at 5:15 am, checked in, went thru security, had breakfast, boarded the plane at 6:30, waited, flew at 7:00, arrived at 8:30, got luggage, got picked up at 9:15 am, and made it to San Mateo at about 9:30 – a 4 hour, 15 minute trip. Unfortunately, only a 7 am or 3 pm flight was available on Thanksgiving. With HSR and the Regional Connector, we will be able to get from our home to the Caltrain station in San Mateo in under 3:45 (50 minutes to LAUS, 2:30 to Palo Alto, 15 min to San Mateo, plus transfer time), without every being crammed into a tiny plane. On the way there, I sat next to a Jet Blue pilot in the seat next to me, who mentioned that Jet Blue may pull out of Long Beach Airport due to rising fuel costs, low profits and limited flights allowed by the NIMBY neighbors.

    On the way back, we had an hour-long BART trip from the east bay (quite nice, actually) to SFO, checked in at 4:00 pm, waited while our kid freaked out due to sitting still in line and having his shoes taken off, and then waited from 4:30 to 5:00 (more temper tantrums, then a nap) until boarding the plane 30 minutes early. We left late at 5:45 due to the plane being absolutely packed, which doesn’t work well with Southwest’s “pick your seat” boarding policy. We arrived late at LAX at 7:15, waited for baggage, waited a long time for the bus to the green line, transferred to the blue line, and got to Long Beach at 8:15, and home at 8:30. It was a 5.5 hour trip; almost as long as driving (well, without traffic!), and 2 hours longer than HSR (50 min to LAUS, 2 hr 40 min to

    jimsf Reply:

    all my customers sum up air travel with the same exact word “hassle”

  11. Eisenberg
    Dec 1st, 2009 at 16:24

    … 2 hours longer than HSR (30 min to Transbay, 2 hr 40 min to LAUS, 50 minutes to home in LB = 4 hours, El Cerrito to Long Beach).

    Also, with HSR there will be plenty of room even on holidays for years; just run longer or more frequent trains, and no need to leave at odd hours to fit the airline’s schedule. Our kid would be able to walk around and jump up and down all he wants.

    I have no doubt that HSR will attract more passengers than all of the current in-state flights. The experience and even the speed will be so much better.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Don’t bet on there being seats available on the holidays. Or convenient times. Book early. Amtrak wedges people onto NJTransit bi-levels on the holidays. It makes the special trains especially special for those 3 hour rides.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Amtrak operates under different constraints from CAHSR. For a start, CAHSR won’t have to share a two-track tunnel with a 22 tph commuter operation.

  12. adirondacker12800
    Dec 1st, 2009 at 20:59

    19 TPH. Amtrak has 4 slots at peak giving a total of 23, though there are supposedly 60 minute time periods in December when the total is 25 or 26 – “shopper specials” are added to the schedules.

    On holidays most workplaces close. That’s one of the characteristics of days called holidays. Commuters being wily creatures don’t go to work when their workplace is closed. Commuter agencies have noticed this and run less trains on holidays. Usually a Sunday schedule on major holidays and Saturday schedules on lesser ones.

    That frees up track capacity for Amtrak. Unfortunately Amtrak doesn’t have enough cars and locomotives to take advantage of it. They lease equipment from MARC and NJTransit on particularly busy days. So when you book that seat on a train that only runs on Thanksgiving day chances are very good that it will be a commuter train that is operating between NY and DC. I’m sure it’s a cozy ride snuggled in to a NJTransit bilevel between New Carrolton and Metropark. The train numbers are 3xxx. They don’t appear in the printed schedules.

    CAHSR won’t have that luxury because there aren’t commuter agencies with excess cars and locomotives that are rated for 220 MPH. . . book early…

    Alon Levy Reply:

    I’m sure that the Chinese and Taiwanese HSR agencies know how to deal with Chinese New Year crunches better than Amtrak knows how to deal with Christmas crunch.

    So it’s not as if CAHSR won’t have foreign expertise to draw from.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    China doesn’t have significant amounts of high speed rail yet. They put anything on the tracks that runs just like Amtrak does on the Northeast Corridor. And I don’t know if people would put up with standing all the way like Chinese do for New Years. They handled it really well in early 2008

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Taiwan does have significant HSR, though.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Which works out well if you want to sell out trains within hours of opening the reservations for them. Not so well if you actually want to book a reservation.

  13. jimsf
    Dec 2nd, 2009 at 00:24

    Always book early if for no other reason than to get the lowest fare. Last minute hsr fares on full trains will be full “Y” fares Book early enough and even on the busiest day of the year ( day before tgiving) you can get a “D” fare.

    HSR is likely to use fare buckets rather than set one way commuter type tariffs in order to manage revenue per demand. (peak , off peak, excursion, advance purchase, etc) This allows them to maximize revenue in high demand classes and time slots, while building ridership in low demand periods.

    Rafael Reply:

    Of course, you could just decide to celebrate Thanksgiving either early or late, just to avoid the general travel madness and elevated ticket prices.

    jimsf Reply:

    Sure that’s what I do, but you know, the masses, they like to do everything together in big clumps all at the same time.

  14. Militant Angeleno
    Dec 2nd, 2009 at 16:55

    Never take the Reason Foundation and Liberatrians seriously. They’re all a bunch of overweight, balding white men who’ve never kissed a girl before they married their mail-order bride.

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