A Retrospective on High Speed Rail: Always Off the Track

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

Twenty years ago I was Executive Director of the San Bernardino Transportation Commission and had the opportunity to spend three weeks at U.C. Berkeley on a “micro-sabbatical.” The high-speed rail proposal was then attracting attention. While there I analyzed the newly issued high-speed rail feasibility studies. Two months later Cal’s Institute of Governmental Studies published my analysis in an article entitled, “High Speed Rail in California: An Expensive Train to a Slower Trip.” I believe this was the first published article which made the case that HSR would be a colossal mistake. 

Governor Newsom blames the downfall of HSR as “mismanagement” and thus diverts attention from the real issue:  HSR was, and is, a bad idea. “Bad” management can make a bad idea worse but “good” management can’t turn a bad idea into a good idea. It should be obvious now that this disaster is a result of a flawed decision-making process (described below) which has guaranteed failure.

Following a quick review of HSR’s history over the past twenty years the remainder of this essay is a re-print of a portion of my 1999 article which dealt with these questions: “How can a proposal of this scale and impact go this far with so little debate and public discussion?  What are the politics of promoting a solution in search of a problem?”

First a quick jaunt through HSR’s history of shifting objectives, claims, promises, projections and delusional financing schemes. The only two constants over the last twenty years have been that costs are increasing and ridership is decreasing.

HSR is needed to relieve airport congestion. The original studies touted HSR diversion of air passengers as the most important purpose for the project. The 1998 feasibly study concluded that almost two-thirds of the HSR ridership would be “diverted” from the LA-SF corridor.

HSR is needed to curb carbon emissions. Net carbon reduction might be achieved – but not for at least the some 50 years it will take to amortize the volume of carbon emissions produced during construction.
HSR should be financed by a state sales tax increase. This was the original financing plan but then someone realized that by a majority state-wide vote (rather than two-thirds) the project could be bonded; thus magically eliminating public disclosure of the need for additional taxes.

HSR is needed because “High-speed rail costs less than one-half as much as the alternatives – building more lanes, bridges and ramps and terminals.”  This quote from Governor Brown has no basis in fact and was repeated often by gullible newspaper editorial boards.

HSR is needed to provide a $1billion windfall to local commuter rail systems. This was the price extracted in return for local transit agencies’ support of the $9 billion bond Proposition IA in 2008.

HSR is needed to facilitate long-distance commuting from the Central Valley to the Silicon Valley. This rationale began to surface about 2007. The original feasibly studies made no reference to daily commuters.

HSR is needed to concentrate development in the Central Valley. (Jerry Brown)

HSR is needed to move people to jobs elsewhere in the Central Valley. A commute trip on HSR means that the average distance between where the average commuter works and lives will increase. Last time I checked this goal was not on top of Smart Growth’s checklist.

HSR is needed because Europe, Japan and China have it.

HSR is needed because it would be “The backbone of a fast, clean mass-transportation system that would connect urban centers across the state.” (LA Times Editorial, February 14, 2019)

HSR is needed to provide faster passenger trips. The most recent projections for the erstwhile LA-SF system indicate that HSR would provide a slower door-to-door trip than a competing auto or air trip.

HSR is needed to provide a quick train serving California from San Diego to the Bay Area/Sacramento. The voters approved the project in 2008 based on this representation. Thereafter the route from Anaheim to San Diego and the Sacramento extension were eliminated.

HSR’s passenger fares will cover operating costs and this will entice private investors into the project. No private investors came forth. Even if fares did cover operating costs (which is the case in only two systems in the world) construction costs would account for about 80% the system’s life-cycle costs –borne by taxpayers; not passengers.

HSR is needed to stimulate the “economic transformation” of the Central Valley. This, HRS’ newest raison d’etre, was stated by Governor Newsom on February 14. No kidding! Spending $15 billion on anything in the Central Valley will provide short term economic stimulus.

With our retrospective concluded, the following are excerpts from my 1999 article noted above. I would like to think that these words contain some insight about how to avoid similar catastrophes in the future.

“How can a proposal of this scale and impact come this far with so little debate and public discussion? What are the politics of promoting a solution in search of a problem? Some explanations:

1. Exploit public sentiment that large scale, high-tech public investment will solve intractable problems of congestion and pollution. A technological fix is always tempting.

2. Exploit the mentality that our transportation system should be converted from a private to a public good; i.e., the tax payer should pay more and the user less. This is the history of surface transportation finance over the past thirty years. It is most pronounced in public transit, which has shifted from virtually no public subsidy thirty years ago, to the present in which over two-thirds of the operating cost of each transit trip is subsidized – not counting the subsidy of 100% of the capital costs.

This trend is also true of auto travel with the decline of the gas tax and a shift to greater reliance on general purpose taxes. This anti-user fee mentality makes it politically easier to justify large scale projects with the taxpayers paying most of the cost.

3. Extricate the HSR discussion and analysis from the state’s normal transportation policy and funding process. This was done by removing HSR from the California State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) which is the primary forum for evaluating statewide transportation projects.

Proponents realized early on that HSR could not compete for traditional transportation resources (state and federal gas taxes and county sales tax measures. The solution was to remove HSR from the responsibility of the California Transportation Commission and Caltrans by creating an independent authority to implement the most expensive transportation project the state has ever contemplated.

4. Gain local and regional support around the state by holding workshops about “What should be the route?” rather than “Is HSR a good or bad investment?” Regional meetings of the Authority have focused on alternative routes and stations. Thus local input was reduced to: “If it’s going to happen and it’s free we want our share.” The criterion for evaluating the HSR proposal focused solely on maximizing the perceived benefit to the local economy. The question of whether this is a good investment for California as a whole was barely raised.

5. The “proponent” role of the Authority was institutionalized before it was determined that HSR is a good investment. The creation of an independent HSR Commission (now Authority) established a framework that institutionalized HSR as a credible possibility before any analyses or feasibility studies were produced. This strategy gave HSR an aura of legitimacy and created a policy framework that was biased in favor of HSR from the start.

In this context the issue was framed: “Is HSR feasible?” and not “Is HSR worth the investment?” The feasibility study concludes that “HSR is financially feasible under the stated assumptions, including voter approval of authority for the High-Speed Rail project.” Thus, HSR is deemed feasible because the voters can approve the project. Remarkably this is the foundation of the Authority’s claim that the project is feasible. Open the flood gates. Any project can be built if voters approve a large enough subsidy.”

I would like to think that these twenty year-old observations about a project destined for failure provide some guidance about how to approach future grand schemes.

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