California’s high-speed rail project increasingly looks like an expensive social science experiment to test just how long interest groups can keep money flowing to a doomed endeavor before elected officials finally decide to cancel it. What combination of sweet-sounding scenarios, streamlined mockups, ever-changing and mind-numbing technical detail, and audacious spin will keep the dream alive?
Sold to the public in 2008 as a visionary plan to whisk riders along at 220 miles an hour, making the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in a little over two and a half hours, the project promised to attract most of the necessary billions from private investors, to operate without ongoing subsidies and to charge fares low enough to make it competitive with cheap flights. With those assurances, 53.7 percent of voters said yes to a $9.95 billion bond referendum to get the project started. But the assurances were at best wishful thinking, at worst an elaborate con.
The total construction cost estimate has now more than doubled to $68 billion from the original $33 billion, despite trims in the routes planned. The first, easiest-to-build, segment of the system — the “train to nowhere” through a relatively empty stretch of the Central Valley — is running at least four years behind schedule and still hasn’t acquired all the needed land. Predicted ticket prices to travel from LA to the Bay have shot from $50 to more than $80. State funding is running short. Last month’s cap-and-trade auction for greenhouse gases, expected to provide $150 million for the train, yielded a mere $2.5 million. And no investors are lining up to fill the $43 billion construction-budget gap.
Once upon a time railroad trains were the cutting edge of technology and the fastest and most reliable form of transportation. That was way back in the 19th Century.
People in Los Angeles who want to travel to San Francisco currently have two main options – you can fly or you can drive. Walking, hitchhiking, bicycling or riding a bus are not practical options.
Flying is the quickest option, and will remain so even if the bullet train is ever completed. But in order to fly you have to go from point A in Los Angeles to point B in San Francisco. Neither airport is near the downtown area of their respective cities.
So if you choose to fly you will still have to arrange transportation to and from the airports and to move about in San Fransisco. That means paying for parking, car rentals, taxis, etc.
And not everybody will want to go directly from Los Angeles to San Fransisco. Los Angeles is just one city in Southern California (aka “SoCal”) and San Francisco is just one part of the SF Bay Area. What if you wanted to go from Cal Tech in Pasadena to UC California in Berkeley? How convenient is that bullet train now?
A bullet train will offer all the hassles or air travel but will take longer, especially if/when TSA takes over train security. Nor will it be substantially cheaper.
Trains are really good for moving cargo. For long-distance passenger transportation not so much. Even where trains are heavily used for local travel (subways, the Acela corridor Amtrak) They still require heavy subsidies to stay in operation.
I predict that California will lose a lot more money ($billion$) before they admit that the bullet train was a bad idea.