Is there any high speed rail boondoggle big enough to make rail transport advocates reject it? Sadly, for all too many of them, the answer is No, as two recent developments make clear.
The first is in California, where the state continues to press forward on a high speed rail plan for the state that could cost anywhere from $68 billion to $100 billion. Voters had previously approved $10 billion in bonds for the project, but as the state's economy and finances have continued to sour – including multiple major cities going bankrupt – the polls have turned against it, and with good reason. The state faces the prospect of already enacted education cutbacks if Gov. Jerry Brown's tax increase proposal in not approved in a vote this fall. Other painful service cuts loom. Voters are rightly asking themselves if now is the time to be borrowing public money for very expensive, speculative infrastructure.
Equally, many of the much cited overseas examples of high-speed rail seem, well, to be off the tracks. China's rail system has serious safety problems, for example. And developing the most extensive high speed rail system in Europe hasn't stopped Spain from seeing 50% youth unemployment, a 3 percentage point increase in the VAT tax, and a humiliating bailout from the rest of the EU.
Nevertheless, the California assembly recently voted to go full speed head on its high speed rail plans. As part of an overall $8 billion rail spending package, the state is borrowing $2.6 billion to complement $3.2 billion in federal funds left over from the stimulus (shovel ready???) to build a starter segment of the line linking Bakersfield and Madera through the Central Valley. This is the easiest segment on which to build – though legal action is likely to delay construction – but doesn't do anything to link the state's huge population centers around LA and the Bay Area. With no more significant federal funds likely to be forthcoming, and the state's finances a wreck, this segment risks becoming an embarrassing white elephant, or, as critics call it, “a train to nowhere”.
After this vote it came to light that respected French high speed rail operator SNCF had approached California officials, private funding in hand, with a preliminary offer to build the LA-SF link themselves on a better and cheaper alignment along I-5 that would cost only $38 billion. But this was rejected by the state. The Times account suggests this rejection came about due to a combination of a political preference for the inefficient Central Valley segment and the clout of Parsons Brinckerhoff, the lead contractor. Some commentators have referred to this revelation as a “bombshell.”
Despite management misstep after management deception, rail advocates around the country cheered California's decision to build the Central Valley segment. Jerry Brown, with not much to show for his reprise as Governor, is excited of course. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood called it a “big win.” America 2050 (an offshoot of the Regional Plan Association of New York), “commended” the state for “taking a big step forward.” Streetsblog called it a “major victory.” While I respect what these organizations do in other contexts, this high speed rail vote is not a major victory, but a major defeat for common sense.
But apparently not willing to let California take the prize in the rail boondoggle category without a fight, Amtrak shortly thereafter issued a “vision” for rail in the Northeast Corridor that would provide faster service between Boston and Washington, DC – at a cost of $151 billion. Strange as it sounds, some commentators actually lauded Amtrak for reducing costs since the previous plan was $169 billion. The Brookings Institution was measured in its reaction to the plan, but managed to describe it as “more rational.” With Republicans seemingly safely in charge of the House for now, and large federal deficits projected for the mid-term future, $151 billion for Amtrak seems purest fantasy.
These developments are unfortunate because high speed rail could play an important role in US transportation, particularly in the Northeast. But that's unlikely to happen because of the indiscriminate way establishment advocates have supported anything with the “high speed rail” label attached, ranging from $2 billion, 110 MPH peak speed Toonerville Trolleys in Illinois that barely beat Megabus in terms of journey time to the California rail boondoggle, regardless of merit. All they know that if it claims to be high speed rail, they are in favor of it.
There are other people who take a more serious view. Unfortunately, they tend to be outsiders with little influence. For example, Alon Levy suggested a set of near term, incremental Northeast Corridor improvements that might cost 90% less than Amtrak's plan.
$8 billion in stimulus dollars have gone to purchase us nothing of any real significance in terms of rail infrastructure. That money, invested wisely in high priority projects in the Northeast Corridor, could have made a big difference and started building a real demonstrated case for high speed rail investment in America. Unfortunately, the way high speed rail has been botched by its advocates, all the money we've spent on it has accomplished just the opposite. If California's Central Valley segment is built and the complete line is never finished, it will likely discredit high speed rail in America for the long term.
Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool.
CA route map by Wikipedia user CountZ.