High-Speed Rail Advocates Discredit Their Cause — Again

Published July 13, 2012

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 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 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 is not approved in a vote this fall.

Other service cuts loom as well. Voters are rightly asking whether now is the time to be borrowing public money for very expensive, speculative infrastructure.

Equally significant is that many of the much-cited overseas examples of high-speed rail seem to be, well, off the tracks. China’s rail system has serious safety problems, and developing the most extensive high-speed rail system in Europe hasn’t stopped Spain from suffering 50 percent youth unemployment, a 3 percentage point increase in the VAT (value-added tax), and a humiliating bailout from the rest of the European Union.

Starting with ‘Train to Nowhere’

Despite these cautionary tales, the California assembly recently voted to go full-speed ahead 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 federal stimulus 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 it doesn’t do anything to link the state’s huge population centers around Los Angeles 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 the assembly 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-San Francisco link themselves on a better and cheaper alignment along I-5 that would cost only $38 billion. The state rejected the idea.

The Los Angeles Times account suggests this rejection resulted from a combination of a political preference for the inefficient Central Valley segment and the clout of the lead contractor, Parsons Brinckerhoff, a giant New York City-based engineering and construction management firm. Some commentators have referred to this revelation as a “bombshell.”

Despite the management missteps and government deception, rail advocates around the country cheered California’s decision to build the Central Valley segment. Gov. Jerry Brown expressed excitement. U.S. 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.”

Amtrak Embracing Fantasy

Amtrak, however, took a differet attitude. Apparently unwilling to let California take the prize in the rail boondoggle category without a fight, shortly after the assembly vote Amtrak 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 may sound, some commentators actually lauded Amtrak for reducing costs—the previous plan called for $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 U.S. House for now, and large federal deficits projected for the midterm future, $151 billion for Amtrak seems purest fantasy.

These developments are unfortunate because high-speed rail could play an important role in U.S. transportation, particularly in the Northeast. But that’s unlikely to happen because of the indiscriminate way establishment figures 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 is that if its proponents claim something to be high-speed rail, they favor it.

Discrediting Rail for Long Term

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 percent less than Amtrak’s plan.

Eight billion dollars in stimulus dollars have gone to purchase 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.

Instead, 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 the United States for years to come.

Aaron M. Renn ([email protected]) is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. Reprinted with permission from NewGeography.com.