Off Track - California Dreamin' of High Speed Rail


Japan and France move over. High speed rail is coming to the Golden State if the California High Speed Rail Authority gets its way. The Authority promises Californians that if they vote for Proposition 1A authorizing $9.95 billion in bonds that they will one day enjoy trains barrelling along at speeds of 197 miles per hour linking all of California's biggest cities. And the trains will make a profit too. Too good to be true? You betcha.

My colleagues over at the Reason Foundation (the non-profit that publishes reason) painstakingly show in a due diligence study that this is all a very expensive fantasy: 

"The current high-speed rail plan is a fairy tale," said Adrian Moore, Ph.D., vice president of research at Reason Foundation and the study's project director. "The proposal suggests these high-speed trains will be the fastest ever; the most-ridden ever; the cheapest ever; and will convince millions of Californians they no longer need to drive or fly. Offering up a best-case scenario is one thing, but actually depending on all of these miracles to happen simultaneously is irresponsible public policy."

Proposition 1A would authorize $9.95 billion in bonds for a high-speed passenger train, but taxpayers should beware that this is just a fraction of the system's total price. The Rail Authority claims the first two phases of the system will cost $45 billion. But even that understates the total price. With the high costs of building in California and the history of cost overruns on rail projects, the final price tag for the complete high-speed rail system will actually be $65 to $81 billion, according to the Reason Foundation report.

And while the Rail Authority forecasts between 65 and 96 million intercity riders by 2030, the due diligence report finds these projections are dramatically inflated. After compiling numerous ridership studies previously conducted for California rail systems, the study demonstrates the state can expect 23 million to 31 million riders a year in 2030.

Any failure to meet the Rail Authority's lofty ridership projections would force ticket-price increases, further cutting ridership, or require taxpayer subsidies to cover the financial shortfall, adding to future budget deficits. The due diligence report finds "the San Francisco-Los Angeles line alone by 2030 would suffer annual financial losses of up to $4.17 billion."

Similarly troubling, the report finds that no existing high-speed rail train is currently capable of meeting the speed and safety goals set by the system's advocates. California will have to use heavier, slower trains than the world's other high-speed rail systems because it plans on using the same tracks as freight trains in some sections, instead of specialized tracks.

Whole Reason Foundation report here.