The Little Train That Couldn’t: CA’s High Speed Rail

The Little Train That Couldn’t: CA’s High Speed Rail

California’s high-speed rail project has fallen into a ditch due to yet another delay. Now would be a good time to put a bullet in this bullet-train scheme before even more billions of taxpayers’ dollars are wasted.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority denies there’s a holdup. Maybe it’s just a matter of semantics. What critics are calling a delay is considered by supporters to merely be a four-year extension of the deadline to 2022 to complete the 119-mile Central Valley span, thanks to an amendment to the project contract approved by the Obama administration.

But no matter how the facts are interpreted, multiple delays have sidetracked the project in the last seven years.

Once completed, the only bullet train in the nation is anticipated to move passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in fewer than three hours, supposedly reaching speeds up to 220mph. Its total length will be about 800 miles, linking Sacramento and San Diego.

So far, the California High-Speed Rail Authority has spent $1.72 billion in federal money on the project, on its way to spending at least $79 billion, including $15 billion added due to the “delay.” Though a sizable sum has already been spent, not a single foot of track has been laid, even though the first stretch scheduled to be built, from Madera south to Shafter, was chosen because it was determined to be the most “shovel ready” section of the entire project. As John Merline of Investor’s Business Daily points out, this is “not exactly a heavy transportation corridor.”

While the entire route, once completed, would connect frequently traveled cities, it’s fair to ask if the train will actually have any passengers.

Initial ridership projections – information voters used in 2008 to approve the rail – said by 2030 the system will carry from 65.5 million to 96.5 million intercity riders a year. But those numbers came from the CHSRA, which has a habit of inflating ridership predictions, Wendell Cox and Joseph Vranich say in an independent report. Cox and Vranich believe the true ridership numbers will be between 23.4 million and 31.1 million.

So, yes, there will be passengers. But at what cost? Again, the story told to voters when they approved the rail was rosier than the reality.

“In 2008, voters were promised fares of ‘about $50 a person’ ” between Los Angeles and San Francisco. But “that has gone up to $81 already,” Cox and Vranich reported in a follow-up study. Consequently, the argument that taking the train will be cheaper than traveling by car vanishes. Cox and Vranich say “out-of-pocket automobile costs would be approximately one-third to one-half less than high speed rail fares depending upon distance traveled and how many people are riding in a car.”

Promised travel times have also been too optimistic, as it’s unlikely the trains will ever reach 220mph. Cox and Vranich report the fastest non-stop San Francisco-Los Angeles trips over the first phase of the project “are estimated to operate at from 3:50 to 4:40” rather than the 2:40 initially claimed. The slower travel times will, of course, lead to fewer riders.

Travel times aren’t all that is increasing. The cost will be much higher than early published estimates.

When voters approved the rail by a 53-47 margin, they authorized the state to issue $9.95 billion in bonds to build it. At that time, the official estimate for full completion was $33 billion, the remaining funds to come from federal and private sources.

But, predictably, that figure was soon obsolete. A little more than a year later, the estimate was bumped up to $43 billion. That was more than doubled in late 2011, when projections soared to a range between $98.5 billion and $117 billion. As highspeedboondoggle.com, points out, even the low end of that estimate is three times higher than the original projection.

A subsequent estimate made in 2012 after a plan revision fell to $68 billion. The most recent change, due to the “delay,” has moved the price tag upward again, to at least $79 billion, by some counts.

In the short term, delays and costs have escalated to the point that construction experts believe the first 29 miles of track “alone could be as much as $400 million over budget,” the Los Angeles Times reports. Given that, it’s safe to say this project will be a historic budget-buster.

So for all these growing problems, what are taxpayers getting for their dollars? A train that will be more plodder than bullet, more empty than full, more expensive than promised. It’s a bad idea that keeps getting worse.

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