Jerry Brown

High Speed Rail Is Dead


A devastating report from the California Legislative Analyst's Office recommends that the Golden State take its high speed rail project offline, dismantle its longstanding high speed rail authority, renegotiate the terms of funding coming from Washington D.C., and postpone planning in a way that could result in the state's effectively rejecting federal high speed rail funds. 

Here is the LAO report [pdf]. And here is a very good summary from analyst Eric Thronson on the cybervisual interwebs: 

To unpack Thronson's recommendations a bit: 

If you paint the thing in SEIU colors you're just begging it not to work.

• If the state must "obtain relief" from current federal restrictions on the project, that would, under ordinary circumstances, mean missing the September 2012 deadline to begin the project or lose federal funds. However, the state managed to get that deadline lifted by agreeing to the Federal Rail Authority's widely ridiculed "train to nowhwere" plan that would have the project beginning in a remote pocket of the Central Valley. From page 9 of the report: "After HSRA approved the Central Valley section, the FRA dropped the September 2011 deadline for environmental clearance work." However, there are related deadlines, including a completion deadline of 2017 for stimulus funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Moreover, the LAO also recommends reconsidering the route of the first leg, which would remove the condition on which the FRA waived its deadline in the first place. 

• By recommending that the currently planned alignment for the first leg (which the report refers to, variously, as running from "near Fresno" to "north of Bakersfield"), the LAO concedes that the train to nowhere plan is unfeasible. The report notes that the projected cost of just this segment has increased more than 57 percent since planning began, and the LAO's advice to base the project on need and projected rider revenue makes the Corcoran-to-Borden route a non-starter. 

• The recommendation that the legislature "shift responsibility" from the California High Speed Rail Authority to Caltrans is another radical suggestion made in measured tones. The authority has a long history of costly non-performance, and dismantling it makes sense. But it's new for a respected government authority to make the suggestion. 

• So is the recommendation to "remove decision-making authority from the HSRA board." Again, leadership of the authority, even at the level of personnel and public relations, has been disastrous. But by making sure "state fiscal concerns are fully taken into account," the LAO is acknowledging that there is no justification for spending any more money on the project. The report suggests that Gov. Jerry Brown's $185 million requested appropriation be whittled down to only $7 million. That's close to nothing in government work. (As of last year the California High Speed Rail Authority had spent $250 million since 1996, without laying an inch of track.) 

Prior to the LAO announcement, Cato's Randal O'Toole suggested the multistate rejection of FRA funds means the Obama Administration's high speed rail plan is over, and not just in California:

In essence, the administration has given up on high-speed rail. New York Times editorial writers haven't figured that out yet, opining that Florida Governor Scott made a dreadful mistake when he rejected the rail money. In fact, as tax activist Doug Guetzloe told a Tampa newspaper, "Federally funded rail is like being given a brand new Maserati and then you have to pick up the gas and the insurance — forever. The car looks great, but the costs will kill you."

The Times suggested that Florida taxpayers will resent Scott's decision whenever they are stuck in traffic. But no one seriously believes that intercity rail will ever relieve traffic congestion, most of which is in cities, not between them. In its original application for high-speed rail funds, Florida's DOT admitted that Orlando-to-Tampa traffic grows more every five years than all the cars the trains were expected to take off the road, so at best high-speed rail was a very expensive and temporary solution to congestion.

Outside of the Times editorial offices, most transportation experts agree that the President's high-speed rail program is over and his draft transportation bill is dead on arrival. Taxpayers throughout the country should thank Scott (as well as Ohio Governor John Kasich and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker) for saving them the hundreds of billions of dollars that Obama's program would have eventually cost.

Also before the LAO report, the Los Angeles Times' Richard Simon and Michael Muskal gave an upbeat view that Florida's rejection would help add 20 miles to the train to nowhere, possibly allowing it to reach Fresno itself. To do so will mean rejecting the nearly unanimous recommendations (including previous LAO reports) of experts, in government and out of it, who have examined the high speed rail plan. 

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  1. I don’t think I understand here. Clearly, only a state run by foolish and short sighted idiots would turn down free federal funding.

    I mean, any state turning down federal money just wants to turn itself into a shanty town of decaying roads, while states that accept such money will become utopian rail hubs.

  2. I don’t think I understand here. Clearly, only a state run by foolish and short sighted idiots would turn down free federal funding.

    I mean, any state turning down federal money just wants to turn itself into a shanty town of decaying roads, while states that accept such money will become utopian rail hubs.

    1. I’m not exactly sure why you sorts of people are so critical of what California does, when we’re the ones bankrolling the rest of the country.

  3. But Daddy I want a high-speed rail system now! I want to be able to commute from LA to San Francisco because that’s what they do in Europe and Japan.

    1. But could you handle a bidet?

      1. Considering the amount of shit liberals have been dumping on California, they definitely need one.

        1. Oh, my, no, no, can’t have that much impact on the ocean!

          Yeah, these weenies piss me off almost as much as the State assholes who’s profession is wasting my taxes.

      2. Not on a train moving at 200 miles per hour.

    2. Are you referring to the people who already commute from southern to northern California and vise versa?

  4. Ah Tim! You’re so naive! Do you really think the LAO is going to stand between the Dragon Lady and “the promise of smart urban planning, speed, and safety”? I still predict that this money gets spent on a rail line somewhere in the Central Valley.

    Besides, if the LAO’s recommendations were binding, California would be putting off implementing its cap-and-trade law for a year. And we all know that’s not going to happen.

  5. This suspenders-wearing joker thinks California should get federal funding without federal “guidance” on its use? I. Don’t. Think. So.

    1. Fist, it’s clearly just a nefarious plot to introduce Jim Crow back into California.

      1. He is wearing suspenders…..

  6. A highspeed rail line from Corcoran-to-Borden is such an amazingly bad idea it’s hard to believe we wont end up making it happen.

  7. I feel like doing a little dance.
    ::does the electric slide::

  8. A highspeed rail line from Corcoran-to-Borden is such an amazingly bad idea it’s hard to believe we wont end up making it happen.

    No kidding, if they had to build 20 miles of high-speed rail line, they should’ve done one through the Napa Valley. That way you could at least use it to ferry drunks around, and rich liberals would be around to sing its praises.

  9. High Speed Rail Is Dead“, but Zombie High Speed Rail will continue to eat the brains of would-be social engineers everywhere.

    1. Ha!

  10. Just read a story in the local Tampa/St. Pete rag about what a fooool that Gov Scott is, to reject free money from the Fed to build a magic train that runs on wishes, in order to service two minor Florida cities.

    Good ol’ Ray LaHood shows up fresh from rousing sleeping air-traffic controllers to twirl his mustache and laugh at the idea of not throwing away federal funds on ridiculous projects. LaHood also announces that the federal slop will just go to some other idiots who will surely have a cost-efficient, levitating train from the future in no time. Surely. Oh, don’t bother to look at data or facts or any past transportation projects that are loaded with subsidies, graft and fraud. And dont you even think of getting rid of the TSA – there’s toddlers and grandmas that need friskin!

    Ugh, these politicians are really the best we can do? It’s enough to make you break down and weep to hear the lip-service of ‘cutting down on spending’ as the adjacent crooks shovel our taxes into a burn barrel. Or to hear the opinions from people who actually buy into this tripe.


    1. Idiots. Anyone who has watched an episode of “Futurama” knows that the future of transportation is the pneumatic tube transport system.

  11. Not sure if you guys have heard, apparently JsubD died. I guess that’s why we haven’t seen him posting lately.

    Unqualified Offerings

    1. R.I.P. dude.

      1. I’ve kept my favorite comments of his and just reminisced. I’m truly sorry he never said anything about his illness, or his difficulty.

        J sub D was so smart, and witty and I don’t mind saying I’ve cried my eyes out for the last hour.

    2. Rest in peace, J sub D.

      I know nothing of him personally, but he was a good libertarian. God speed.

    3. Thanks for letting us know. J sub D was a guy whose posts I would read even if I only had time to scan through the comments. Rest in peace.

  12. Has any high speed rail in the US ever been built?

    Not that i want any….but it seems like they have been talking about it since before i was born.

    1. There used to be loads of them in the 1900-1930 or so time period. Interurban streetcars were pretty fast.

  13. What idiot thinks anyone would want to get to Fresno quickly? Get away from, yes. Go towards? No.

    There might be a market for old-school slow-speed trains but it’s impossible to tell with all the interference from the government types.

    I could see taking a train cross-country if the experience of riding the train was fun and interesting. Like traveling in a well-run moving hotel with good amenities. At a good price.

    Checking with Amtrak just now a cross-country trip for two adults and two children is $744-1400 for SEATS not a room. Seats. Almost three days sitting in seats. That’s $248-467 a day. That is not a bargain. Imagine if it was only 100-150 a day for a small private room. Even if it was just four bunks and very little space overall. Nothing fancy. That’s $450 for the trip.

    Now if the train had auto-racks so that passengers could take their cars with them that would increase the value. That way you don’t need to rent a car at the end of your trip, plus you’ve saved 7-10 tanks of gas at about 36-40 bucks each. AT 7 x 36 that’s $250 and deducting about $60 for motels making your extra cost actually @140+ meals (and whatever fee for using the auto-rack.) At 10 tanks of gas x $40 your extra trip cost would be $50 + meals and auto-rack.

    And those numbers don’t include whatever value a person puts on not having to drive a car and dealing with bored kids that distance.

    I think there would be a lot more interest. And I’m sure private carriers would be able to satisfy the demand.

    I know I would find it an easy decision to pay an extra $50 to 150 dollars. Which I might well save by not having to rent a car.

    1. Call Amtrak an ask what the full fare of those tickets are without the subsidy. IIRC, the federal govt subsidizes around 75% of the ticket, meaning that trip really costs between $3000 and $6000 for seats only. The sleeper car is probably another $2500-$4000 depending on the line and transfers.

      1. You’re not saying that a private company would charge that much or that is the intrinsic price of train travel in a free-market are you?

        Really, what it costs for Amtrak to carry passengers isn’t the point, because they suck. It’s what a private carrier could charge and still make money.

        But there’s so much distortion of the market it is impossible to tell that it could be profitable. I’m saying it might be. And that there would be a demand amongst people with a long enough time-preference to where they would be fine traveling for three days on a train instead of four to five hours on a plane.

        1. Maybe, although my gut instinct tells me that if the Shinkansen is only marginally profitable carrying mostly full trains from Tokyo to Osaka — which costs $175 one-way for 220 miles — it’s probably pretty hard to make at least a 2,800 mile trip affordable. It would be a very niche market: people with time on their hands, deep pockets, and the desire to spend time on the train rather than at their destination.

          HSR seems like it will only be competitive for a broader market for well-traveled, short-haul transportation between major cities. It might be justifiable in parts of the US Northeast, for instance. But there’s nothing in the middle of the country — and nothing in between SF and LA for that matter — that would justify HSR.

    2. The real comparison is still with airlines. Those beat spending days on a train (with or without bored kids) anyday. Tickets from Charlotte to San Francisco are $480 and the flight takes 8 hours. Adding days onto that should be out of the question for most people except pensioners, as it requires blowing paid time off. If you want to go the scenic route (sans kids, I’d hope), taking a car’s better anyway, as you can actually stop and get out.

      HSR works okay here in Japan — IIRC, it’s only the Tokyo-Osaka segment that’s profitable, which includes Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka — but there are a huge number of factors that make it easier. Fewer people can afford cars due to space limitations, the country’s tiny and only the eastern seaboard of the main island is really populated, highways are expensive as hell (I just spent $20 on tolls driving two hours, not to mention $7/gallon gas), and the distance from one major city to the next is very small. Most build-out in rail, FWIW, is a) private and profitable, and b) local because that’s where real demand exists.

      Probably the more amazing thing to me is that, after having lived in the Bay Area, we’re discussing connecting SF to LA when it’s not even connected to San Jose. And we could negotiate hard on BART salaries so more people can afford to ride, or relax some building regs so people can afford to live in the city, erm, The City. But no, it’s just about big shiny fast things.

      1. Ending rent control offers no potential for stealing. Why would any politician support such a thing? Now, lets talk about trains.

        1. Rent control’s only the half of it. There are also height limitations for a lot of buildings. And let’s not forget declaring large swaths of land in the Bay as environmental zones. I’ve heard it called opportunistic environmentalism.

          They’ve really done everything possible to force people out of a walkable city with a Mediterranean climate. It’s quite impressive.

          1. And mostly they have forced middle and lower class minorities out. If a southern conservative city like Houston forced blacks out the way San Fransisco has, it would be a national scandal.

  14. They’ve really done everything possible to force people out of a walkable city with a Mediterranean climate. It’s quite impressive.

  15. Never fear, the whole scheme has reconstituted itself in Michigan. According to Ray LaHood, who handed over the obligatory large-format check of almost $200M to the completely compliant RINO Governor Snyder, “…nothing can stop it”

  16. Shit. I was so looking forward to sitting up front wearing my engineer’s cap and making choo-choo noises as we hurtled through California.

  17. High speed rail is dead

    Long live high speed rail!

  18. Just this morning I heard a woman on the radio blaming Kasich for the loss of 10,000 jobs (among others) because he rejected federal money for high-speed rail. If it had been federal money for the creation of carrot tree orchards, she would have said the same. Stupid.

  19. Lets wait at least until October before we write the obituary. October is when the draft version of the 2011 business plan must be released. It will need to contain revised cost
    estimates, including the Central Valley section where work is scheduled to begin about a year later. The Rail Authority has estimated around $8 billion for the 2
    segments from Merced to Bakersfield. The most frequently quoted watchdog group has estimated over $15 billion.

    If they can get the price for this section down close to $8 billion we will probably have a project. If they end up closer to $15 billion, we may have a burial detail, and then you can get the shovels back out.

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