California’s High-Speed Rail Fibs

Mr. Cox - Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and Mr. Vranich - "Business Relocation Coach" helps companies plan and select ideal sites for new facilities across the U.S. and internationally.

(Editors Note: Fox and Hounds Daily frequent contributors Wendell Cox and Joe Vranich published this piece in today’s Wall Street Journal ) >

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.

Estimating the cost to build additional highway and airport capacity in the absence of the rail line requires estimating how many people would be attracted to the train from cars and planes. But that’s not how they did the math, judging by the methodology the authority published.

Proponents based their estimate on train capacity (including empty seats) of 1,000. Their rail plan calls for trains with only 500 seats, but this fictional doubling of capacity nicely boosts the amount of highway construction they can claim would be needed if the train line isn’t built. The authority also assumed that more than twice as many trains would run as they now plan to run when the line is complete. They even include the cost of some highway expansions that would not be needed for hundreds of years at normal growth rates. All of this is absurd. Empty seats do not increase the demand for roads (or airports, for that matter).

Yet inflating the amount of new highways that would have to be built is the name of this game. By imagining huge new demand for train travel and other false premises, for instance, rail planners concluded that it would be necessary to add three lanes to each adjacent highway segment to handle the same demand, whether in the busy Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas or the far lower-demand segments in the San Joaquin Valley. They also doubled the supposed cost of road construction by assuming that the state would need to build three lane expansions on both Interstate 5 and the parallel state Route 99 between places like Bakersfield and Fresno.

The capacity that proponents used to justify additional highway expenditures is more than three times the total current travel on some freeway segments. Not even the rail authority forecasts high-speed rail ridership that will remotely approach the exaggerated capacities used to estimate alternative highway expansion costs. It’s as if rail planners value empty seats on future trains as contributing to reducing highway congestion.

International studies show that car users typically avoid high-speed rail because of its high cost and the time and expense added by having to rent a car or hire taxis to reach their final destinations. World-wide, the largest share of high-speed rail riders are people who used to ride slower trains. There are not enough California train riders now to create a solid base of future fast-train riders. And there is nothing to support the notion that current motorists will switch to rail in substantial numbers.

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.

Highly questionable claims are not new to major infrastructure projects. A team of European researchers, led by Oxford professor Bent Flyvbjerg, reviewed large transportation projects over the last 80 years and found a systematic pattern of error, which they politely referred to in one instance as “strategic misrepresentation,” and then by its real name: “lying.”

Not everyone in America has been so easy to deceive as Californians. A Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail program also was based on misleading cost and ridership projections, prompting Florida Gov. Rick Scott to cancel it and protect taxpayers. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich walked away from high-speed rail projects that would have depleted billions from federal and state treasuries.

Trying to keep the California high-speed rail project alive by claiming that it would be more costly to not build it sets a new low for planning projections in a field that has been rife with abuse.

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