On the campaign trail, California governor Gavin Newsom expressed support for the state’s high-speed rail project, but he’s been more reticent since taking office earlier this year. In February, he proposed to cut back on the plan because it “would cost too much and . . . take too long,” a welcome note of skepticism, but soon afterward, his staff issued a “clarification” explaining that the governor was simply “refocusing to get a finished product from Bakersfield to Merced,” the first leg of the envisioned rail system.
The high-speed rail project is a disaster, with cost projections ballooning and the anticipated time of a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles coming in at four hours; an airplane can get you there in one. The practical thing for Newsom to do would be to scrap it entirely, but that’s not politically feasible. He might be better advised to consider a private-market alternative that could satisfy both practical and political considerations: an autonomous autobahn, where, according to Motor Trend writer Mark Rechtin, “vehicles equipped with self-driving technology run in platoons at a constant 120 mph.”
It may be some time before autonomous cars can navigate streets and adapt to all the complexities of urban life, but self-driving freeway travel might not be so far off. It will require better highways, which don’t come cheap in California, where road construction costs 2.5 times the national average, due in large part to costly environmental reviews and pro-union contracts. But even at $7 million a mile for new rural-freeway construction and $11 million per mile for its urban counterpart, the price tag for a California superfast highway, stretching roughly 500 miles—the distance between San Diego and Sacramento—would be only about 5 percent of that of high-speed rail, which current projections put between $70 billion and $120 billion. The model is Germany’s autobahn, “a reliable national highway system that is very safe despite an unrestricted speed limit,” according to state senator John Moorlach of Orange County. Moorlach cites a World Health Organization study that estimates that road traffic deaths-per-mile in Germany are one-third as common as in the United States.
Access to this high-tech superhighway would be strictly controlled. “Only properly inspected smart vehicles with transponders would be permitted,” says Rechtin. With usage limited to qualified automobiles, the cost of building an autonomous autobahn would properly be shouldered by those who drive on it, preferably via tolls. “Who wouldn’t pay an extra $100 (half a plane ticket) to zip along, hands-free, at double the speed of the current I-5, not having to deal with TSA at the airport, and still have access to their own car when they reach their destination?” Rechtin asks. In this scenario, the autobahn would be the car version of an express flyer, with exits and rest stops spaced out at 50-mile intervals to reduce lane-changing.
Moorlach introduced a bill to open such a road earlier this year. In its original language, it required the California Department of Transportation to build “two additional traffic lanes on northbound and southbound Interstate Route 5 and State Route 99,” the major north-south freeway routes in the state, and to “prohibit the imposition of a maximum speed limit for those traffic lanes.” Since amended, the bill now more modestly directs the department to “submit a report that includes policy recommendations to the Legislature and the California Transportation Commission on any potential advantages of the German autobahn system compared to California’s state highway system and on the feasibility of implementing those potential advantages in California.” Moorlach believes that his autobahn project would appeal to the state’s Europhiles in the same way that the Euro-flavored “bullet train” attracted their support.
An autonomous autobahn is not the only alternative to government-run high-speed rail, however. A Florida-based firm, now called Virgin Trains USA after partnering with British billionaire Richard Branson, operates the country’s only private-owned intercity rail line and is moving ahead with a rail project connecting Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Virgin Trains USA is confident that it can keep costs down and make a profit; no one believes that California’s high-speed rail project could do either of those. California policymakers would also be wise to keep an eye on a private-sector rail project in Texas, as well as Elon Musk’s hyperloop proposal.
These initiatives may or may not pan out, but as Pacific Research Institute fellow Bartlett Cleland says, whether the market deems them successes or failures, “the risk will be borne by investors”—not taxpayers. The same can’t be said of California’s high-speed rail; taxpayers may have to cover nearly all its construction costs. It’s time for the Golden State to shelve this unworkable project and start looking at alternatives that might actually succeed in moving people around the state ten years from now.