California Isn’t Broke
Equipment World, a publication I’d never heard of before today’s Google alert landed in my inbox, has a ridiculous article arguing “high speed rail is the next Obamacare”. If they mean “a good idea systematically undermined by Republican obstruction, I’d agree.
Unfortunately that wasn’t what they meant.
1. California already has a high-speed transportation network. Its called the airlines. They’re not going to build a train that can outrun a Boeing 737. Some 16,000 people fly between Los Angeles and San Francisco every day. How many trains would it take to put a dent in that total?
As you can tell from the start, the concepts of peak oil and climate change are completely foreign to Tom Jackson, author of this piece. Both mean that air travel will not last as a heavy duty piece of the intrastate transportation network in California.
Further, the airlines are supportive of high speed rail because they don’t actually make a huge amount of money on the short haul routes such as SF to LA and would rather those gates be used for medium and long haul routes. SFO and LAX are strong supporters of HSR as well.
Jackson clearly didn’t do his homework on point number 1. But point number 2 is just laughably false:
2. California is broke. The once prosperous state has more bankrupt cities than any other. And the price for this rail system keeps going up, the goalposts keep moving. Voters approved a $9.95 billion bond package for the train in 2008 based on the projections of a final cost of about $45 billion. But last year the agency in charge of organizing the project put the tab at $98 billion. Reshuffling the routes helped shave $30 billion off the tab (and slow down the train considerably) but does anybody think a project like this is going to come in on or under budget. Boston’s Big Dig was sold to the voters as a $2.6 billion project. Final tally was more like $14.6 billion.
Equipment World picked the wrong week to publish this. Yesterday the Legislative Analyst’s Office projected California would see annual budget surpluses of $10 billion by the end of the decade – and that’s after the Prop 30 taxes expire. California is far from broke. It’s about to be one of the richest state governments in the country. And with a GDP of $2 trillion it can easily afford the cost of HSR, especially spread out over 20 or so years.
In fact, with California facing big budget surpluses, the case for HSR will only become stronger as lasting infrastructure is an excellent use of surplus revenue.
3. Tickets are too expensive. Proponents at first bragged of one-way tickets costing $50. Now it’s looking more like $120+. Southwest Airlines has nine flights a day covering that route; $59 one way.
How many times have we had to debunk this one? It’s almost impossible to get that $59 fare unless you buy way in advance. If I were to travel from SFO to LAX tomorrow on Southwest Airlines the cheapest fare I can find is $215. Further, as oil prices and carbon taxes rise, that $59 fare won’t last anyway. By the time HSR opens from SF to LA, $120 will be a bargain.
4. The trains keep getting slower. California voters were originally promised a train trip that would be 2 hours and 40 minutes or less. As the political mud wrestling moves along that travel time has been extended to 3 hours, 40 minutes–and that’s only on the express train. Add the typical 40 to 60 minute commute it requires to get anywhere in LA or San Francisco, and high speed rail passengers will save at best an hour over the six-hour driving time.
My understanding is that the Blended Plan would indeed provide some trips that meet the 2:40 requirement, but that regular all-day service of 2:40 will have to await the full buildout of the Peninsula rail corridor. To the extent that there are delays, they’re the product of NIMBYs, not a poorly planned project. As to the time savings over driving, everyone who actually drives in California knows that you only actually get from SF to LA in six hours if you leave at 9AM on a Tuesday morning.
5. It’s not all that green. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions high speed trains are about on par with airplanes. Cars are more polluting but add a passenger and you cut the emissions per passenger mile in half. Add the whole Griswold family for a vacation and you’re practically an honorary member of Greenpeace.
This point links to a four year old study that did not fully account for the fact that California HSR will use renewable electricity to achieve 5 to 10 million tons of carbon emission reduction between 2022 and 2040. That’s crucial to helping achieve the state’s AB 32 targets.
Jackson closes his article by claiming HSR, unlike Obamacare, is pointless:
California’s high speed rail is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.
This is only true if you believe oil is infinite and will be cheap forever, and if you believe climate change is a lie. For everyone who lives in the real world, HSR is a necessary part of California’s future.