This November, Californians will be asked to consider a $10 billion bond measure to build a high-speed rail system, but the proposal is critically flawed and should give voters serious pause, especially in the current economic climate.
Proposition 1A would authorize $9.95 billion in general obligation bonds to start building an 800-mile high-speed rail system linking Southern California with the Bay Area and Sacramento, including the backbone Los Angeles-San Francisco segment.
There are crucial questions about the financing of the project, however. For starters, where will the rest of the money come from? The $10 billion bond would cover less than one-quarter of the projected $45 billion cost. Proponents hope that they will be able to coax one-third of the cost ($15 billion) from the federal government, which has budget problems of its own. The remainder (about $20 billion) is supposed to come from the private sector, and there is similarly no guarantee that this money will ever materialize. Furthermore, a business plan that the California High-Speed Rail Authority was required by law to submit by Sept. 1 still has not been completed, and, conveniently enough, apparently won't be available until after the election.
The project cost estimates themselves are highly suspect. A recent analysis of the high-speed rail proposal published by Reason Foundation, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation and Citizens Against Government Waste estimates that actual costs will be between $65.2 billion and $81.4 billion. This would hardly be unusual for such a large infrastructure project. Boston's notorious Big Dig project was announced with great fanfare in 1989 with an estimated cost of less than $4.5 billion, 90 percent of which was to come from the federal government. Nineteen years later, the total cost is estimated at $22 billion, and three-quarters of the amount has had to come from the state, diverting money from numerous other state and local infrastructure projects. Closer to home, L.A.'s Blue Line light-rail project ended up costing more than three times the original estimates (even after adjusting for inflation).
The CHSRA's ridership projections are also unrealistic. The authority estimates that as many as 117 million passengers will utilize the high-speed rail system by 2030. To put that in perspective, consider that Amtrak's high-speed Acela service, which serves a larger, denser market consisting of Washington, D.C.; New York; and Boston, has an annual ridership of a little more than 3 million. In fact, the entire Amtrak system, which covers more than 500 destinations and 46 states, serves only about 26 million passengers a year.
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