High Speed Rail’s Collision Course: Part Two, Broken Promises

Norm King
Norm King is a former city manager of three California cities and of the San Bernardino County transportation commission and has taught part-time at USC and Claremont McKenna College. He also served as past director of the Leonard Transportation Center at CSUSB

In Part One I focused on some of the key cost and benefit issues relating to California’s high speed rail (HSR) proposal.  The following is a review of previous commitments about how HSR would be built and perform, which appear impossible to achieve under the present proposal. In summary, the scaled back system now envisioned does not achieve anything close to the benefits promised in Proposition 1A in regard to travel times, ridership or revenues.

A Smaller HSR System than Promised will Cost at Least Twice as Much.  A year or so ago the CHSRA admitted that to build the system promised voters in Proposition 1A in 2008 would cost in excess of $100 billion rather than the $33.5 billion described in the proposition.  Their “solution” has been to scale back the system to a “blended” system which would utilize slower, existing rail tracks at a projected cost of over $60 billion. This system does not include the connections to San Diego and the Inland Empire which were “promised” in Proposition 1A.  Had these connections not been included in the plan presented to voters it is likely that San Diego and the Inland Empire residents would have voted strongly negative to the point of defeating the measure statewide.

The Project is Proceeding in Violation of Past Commitments Regarding Other Funding.  The Governor and the CHSRA intend to proceed spending about $11 billion on a section of track in central California using a one-time $3.5 billion federal grant and about $7 billion from the voter-approved bonds.  The Proposition 1A funding plan stated that one-third of the capital funding would come from each of the following sources:  Proposition 1A bonds; the federal government; and private investment.  Furthermore that, “Matching private and federal [funding is] to be identified before state bond funds are spent.”  The CHSRA is moving ahead with construction in contradiction to these commitments.

After spending the $11 billion on the Central Valley phase, the federal and private investor “one-third” share necessary to complete the remainder of the scaled-down system will be at least $18 billion each.  There is no ongoing federal HSR funding program and little prospect for that to change.  No private sources have been identified and are unlikely to invest because it appears that operating revenues will not cover operating costs, a condition which will make attracting private funds impossible.

Projected Ridership Continues to Decrease.  In 2008 the CHSRA told the voters that there would be 90 million trips per year on HSR, possibly as high as 117 million trips.  Today the CHSRA’s mid-case scenario projects 21 million trips per year.

At 21 million trips the benefit to the state (i.e. passenger trips produced) has been reduced to only 23% of the benefit represented in 2008, even though the cost to provide these far fewer trips has escalated dramatically.  Few private companies would survive if the products they brought to market cost four times more than they originally projected.

Secondly, the credibility of the projected 21 million riders is suspect.  Numerous reports, including the Legislative Analyst’s, have concluded that the ridership assumptions are flawed; one recent study projects just 4.8 to 6.9 million trips per year.

Projected Trip Times are Unrealistic.  With the blended system it is implausible that the legislative mandate to achieve a Los Angeles to San Francisco trip of no more than 2 hours and 40 minutes will be achieved.  A projected time of four hours (one-stop) and much longer for trains stopping more frequently is more realistic.  Slower trip times will reduce ridership and revenues but the Authority has not made such revisions to the projections based on slower speeds.

Operating Subsides will Likely be Needed.  Contrary to CHSRA representation (and legislative mandate) that operating subsidies would not be required and that surplus operating revenues would attract private investment it appears highly likely that operating subsidies will be necessary.  The recent Reason Foundation April 13 Policy Summary “California High Speed Rail: An Updated Due Diligence Report” projects operating losses of between $124 million and $373 million annually.  Professor Enthoven concluded that the CHSRA plan assumes operating cost per passenger mile which are unrealistic and which are only one-fourth the cost which HSR systems in Japan and Germany are incurring.

Summary.  HSR represents everything wrong about how transportation decisions are made and is a triumph of blind ideology and symbolic politics.  The intuitively obvious benefits of HSR – reduced highway congestion and a faster trip, based on projections, are not achieved at all.  Virtually all HSR trips (door to door) will take longer than air and auto alternatives.  Highway congestion will be essentially unaffected by HSR.  The system will require a heavy public subsidy with benefits going disproportionately to the most affluent. The public subsidy per passenger mile will far exceed the subsidy per passenger mile for other transportation modes.

I would like to be able to conclude with the hope that these comments contribute to the debate about HSR.  I can’t.  There is no debate.  The various studies and analyses whether produced by university professors, the California Legislative Analyst, the Reason Foundation or concerned citizens are simply ignored and never rebutted on a point by point basis.  I am personally aware that the CHSRA has at least once refused to participate on a panel (at a respected transportation conference) unless another panelist was asked not to appear.  No CHSRA representative appeared at that conference.

A final note: When I first researched and wrote about “first”  California HSR proposal at the University of California, Berkeley in 1999, HSR was simply a transportation proposal and far from a partisan issue.  It is very sad that the HSR has evolved into a highly partisan issue instead of being a proposal to be debated based on facts and cost-benefit rather than on ideological predilections which basically boil down to, “If it is not a highway it is a good thing,” vs. “If it requires taxes it must be bad.”

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