Transportation Policy

WashPost: Cal Rail Project Is Loco


Most underrated movie of the eighties.

The editorial board at Pravda on the Potomac can't find any reasons to believe in the bullet train. Is that just more violent, tone-coarsening rhetoric from eliminationist ed board honcho Fred Hiatt? Not quite. The WaPo, like virtually everybody who has taken a good look at the CHSR's nearly total lack of funding, non-existent ridership figures, and devastating peer group review [downloadable pdf], finds the project can't be called unsustainable because it's barely even begin-able:

The Peer Review Group's report was only the latest in a series of skeptical blue-ribbon documents. But, undaunted, the California High-Speed Rail Authority announced last month that it would at last begin construction—on a stretch connecting not, say, Los Angeles and Anaheim but two obscure locations in the state's rural Central Valley. The 120-mile segment would cost $5.5 billion. Critics quickly dubbed it a "train to nowhere"—a bit unfair, since some of the towns along the way have expensively redeveloped downtowns that may now suffer from the frequent noise and vibration of trains roaring through them.

This would be a matter of purely West Coast interest but for the fact that the U.S. government is paying more than half the cost of the new track, including $600 million newly diverted from Midwestern states that rejected the funds. Indeed, the Federal Rail Administration required that the money be spent in the Central Valley. It was the part of the state most likely to be ready to use it by a September 2011 deadline, because local property owners in more populated areas are stirring opposition, which drags out the environmental review process.

Given that California's system has attracted zero private capital and has been unable to guarantee any source—governmental or private—for almost half the cost of completion, the obvious risk is that the federal taxpayer will be on the hook for billions of dollars worth of railroad track that may never serve its intended high-speed purpose. But the Obama administration sought the funds, as part of the 2009 stimulus package, and Congress approved them—and so they must be spent.

Link courtesy of Chris Reed.

Even Gordon is doubtful about the California High-Speed Rail project.

The Golden State is now on its second consecutive governor who is willing to scour the earth in search of funding for the bullet boondoggle, but Jerry Brown is in a particularly good position to shunt the CHSR onto a siding and forget about it. In keeping with his new era-of-limits funding philosophy, Brown wants to delay new bond issues (Californians incredibly voted for themselves a massive new pile of choo-choo-related debt just two years ago) and is willing to kibosh Democratic favorites like redevelopment bureaucracies and "enterprise zones." But the CHSR Authority escapes extinction in his austerity budget, receiving instead a cool $102.3 million in state funding (all of it from bond debt) and $89.6 million in federal funds. That's small potatoes, but it does allow the rail project to survive another year (which is the only thing it has managed to do in its 15 years of existence). From the budget's High-Speed Rail Authority section:

The significant Non?General Fund workload adjustments are as follows:

• Program Management Oversight — An increase of $1 million in 2011?12 as a result of an increased need for oversight and review of the Program Management Team's work products and schedules.
• Interagency Agreements — An increase of $1.136 million in 2011?12 as a result of interagency agreements with the Department of Justice and the Department of General Services.
• Program Management Services — A decrease of $37 million in 2011?12 as a result of the contract with the Program Management Team being fully funded.

While the Authority has been awarded several billion dollars in federal funds for construction, details of the grants have not been finalized and appropriation of these funds may not be needed until 2012?13. Thus, only $89.7 million in federal funds for partial design and environmental work is reflected in the Budget, with the same amount in bond funds for the state match.

The spending in Brown's budget proposal seems too modest for any groundbreaking by September 2012. That's the deadline for the state to start building the train or lose $2.25 billion in federal funds. Will missing this deadline be a backdoor way for Brown to terminate the CHSR? It would be a smart move for a project that remains superficially popular but has no actual support when the rubber hits the road—though in this case I guess it would be metal or mag-lev or quidditch brooms rather than rubber.

One small piece of this story is that the CHSRA has been in conflict over rights of way with Union Pacific's freight trains—meaning a market-proven rail industry could be quashed in favor of one that even supporters acknowledge will never become self-supporting. In a tangentially related note, the Association of American Railroads reports a very substantial year-to-year increase in rail traffic in December. That's "good news" for the economy, if you're into that kind of thing. It would be great if they didn't screw up the green shoots by, say, spending billions of future taxpayer dollars on 19th-century technology that nobody will use.

Reason TV more reasons why federal support for high-speed rail is a train wreck in the making:

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  1. Runaway Train… written by *Akira Kurosawa*

    Didnt know that for years. It helps explain why it worked so well.

    1. I thought Soul Asylum wrote that.

  2. Gee, I thought you guys liked bullets! [Laughs hysterically] Anyway, how can you write articles when words have no meaning?

    1. Better get back on those meds, Vanneman, you are even more incoherent than usual.

      1. Oh, dude, I am on my meds! Hey, hey, excellent Xanax!

  3. Bullet Trains!!!!! Haven’t we had enough of this hateful rhetoric already in this country??????

    1. And in related news, Canada has banned the Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing” because it is hateful…..le1868052/

      1. The panel noted that “Money for Nothing” would be acceptable for broadcast if suitably edited.

        The same way they edited out “bullshit” from Pink Floyd’s Money?

        “Money for Nothing” won the Grammy for the Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with a Vocal in 1985 at the 28th annual Grammy Awards.

        Yeah, chop up a Grammy Award winning hit because some faggot’s feelings got hurt. BooHoo.

        1. some faggot’s feelings got hurt

          Probably not. That little faggot, he’s a millionaire.

      2. But, teh Health Care, eh?

      3. Wow, they’re just getting Dire Straits? Canada is further behind than I thought.

  4. But, but, but,

    China is building high sped rail! If we don’t we’ll be left in the economic dust.

    As the world wise Pulitzer Prize winning economist Thomas Friedman notes in this comment that just keeps on giving, the problem is our pesky traditions of democracy getting in the way of progress.

    One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.*

  5. Wait a minute; how will the CHSR screw up freight lines? Isn’t it the point to have CHSR have its own high speed roadbed that doesn’t have to follow the curves that were necessary to allow 19th century locomotives to ascend grades? So if CHSR is going to be whipping through California on a semi-straight line, how many years worth of lawsuits will be filed by the environmentalists and horned toad admirers before shovel one is even turned.

    1. Nope. At least for the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment, with which I’m most familiar, they want to run high-speed rail right down the same right-of-way that the railroad has used since the 19th century, the same right-of-way that was created by negotiation with the original Spanish land grant holders.

  6. some of the towns along the way have expensively redeveloped downtowns that may now suffer from the frequent noise and vibration of trains roaring through them.

    I’m pretty sure they won’t ever have to deal with those vibrations.

  7. local property owners in more populated areas are stirring opposition

    Well, dog mah cats!

    How can these greedy land monopolists have the nerve to obstruct this vast utilitarian dream?

  8. While the Authority has been awarded several billion dollars in federal funds for construction, details of the grants have not been finalized

    “My cookie jar is full of IOUs.”

  9. Back in 1900, libertarians thought the Panama Canal was a boondoggle that would never work. In the intervening century it appears nothing has changed.

    The budget deficit is a problem, but it’s not as bad as the vision deficit. I won’t stand idly by and let America fall behind because a bunch of sticksinthemud are too comfortable with their Cheez Whiz imitation life to work for the future.

    1. Ah yes, the Columbia Panama Canal. It’s one of the great American imperialism success stories.

      I’d rank it right up there with bringing democracy to Mesopotamia.

    2. Back in 1900, libertarians thought the Panama Canal was a boondoggle that would never work.

      Citation please.

  10. Pravda on the Potomac

    So much win.

  11. How is building/maintaining a rail network a subsidy but building/maintaining roads not?

    1. Yes, roads are subsidized. But the construction cost of this rail line is ten times the cost per mile of an interstate highway.

      Furthermore, 50% of the capital and operating costs of roads are covered by gas taxes. The notion that ticket sales on California’s high speed rail will cover 50% of the total costs is beyond fancy.

      1. Aha, so it’s the magnitude of the subsidy that’s the problem. What I was aiming at is the following:
        If there is a possible rail-connection which could be built/mmaintained for a similar amount of subsidies that a comparable road-connection would receive would it be okay? I can’t really believe that every possible rail-connection in the US of A would necessarily be a financial train wreck (hah!). Europe and Japan have higher population densities which makes things possibly more cost-efficient but there also areas in California with comparable densities. Just pondering…

        1. Certainly rail is competitive in the heavily populated northeast corridor between Washington and Boston. Through the underpopulated lands between San Francisco and Los Angeles? Not so much.

          But, to be fair, if California’s high speed rail could cover 95% of the costs without subsidy, I think having government kick in the 5% remainder would be more than equitable when compared to the same per mile subsidy of 50% given to roads.

          1. Yeah, San Francisco -> Los Angeles seems uneconomical. Problem is that politicians tend to favor rail either for ideological and/or “visionary” reasons. I was also more thinking about something like connecting San Francisco, San Jose and Sacramento. Not connecting the whole state.

            1. San Francisco is connected to San Jose by Caltrain, making the 50 mile run in a bit over an hour for the express trains.

              Sacramento is connected to San Jose by Amtrak/Capitol Corridor. To get to San Francisco requires a transfer to BART as you head down the east side of the bay.

              So, yes, there are existing trains taking advantage of the populated areas in northern California. But they’re already built, so don’t qualm that go go go to the future feeling that California’s public masters desire.

              Interestingly, there was a study done a few years ago that found that BART was the only municipal rail line in the US that is worth the subsidy it gets, mostly because it decreases traffic over the Bay Bridge and the consequent hours lost in cars.

              1. And, no, ‘qualm’ is not a verb. Take it as a composite of ‘calm’ and ‘quash’.

  12. You won’t let them have trains or roads?

    Man you libertarians are cruel!

    1. They can indeed have trains or roads, just so long as ‘they’ pay for it. I’m unwilling to do so, and don’t want to make our kids pay for the enormous costs either.

      Does that make me cruel? It seems that you’re actually the cruel one for wanting to stick me, the average taxpayer and future generations with the bill.

  13. “…a matter of purely West Coast interest…”

    West Coast != California. Sheesh. You’d think a paper named Washington Post could keep that straight. But you’d be wrong.

  14. The high-speed rail project makes me very cross! I expect all my engines to be Really Useful.

  15. Other examples of 19th century technology:

    1. freight trains–They came before passenger trains by 15 years.

    2. automobiles–They came later, but still 19th century.–

    3. airplanes—Well not quite, but they came close to making the cutoff.

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