Last Tuesday’s release of the new plan for California’s high-speed rail system, showing the projected cost had doubled to $98 billion, will be used by naysayers to argue we cannot afford to build the project. But to keep California moving and for our long-term competitiveness, perhaps we cannot afford not to build it.
We must not lose track of the long-term vision held by California voters who approved the project in 2008. Have no doubt: This project will bring enormous benefits to California’s economy and citizens, and will actually save taxpayers money in the long term compared with alternatives required if high-speed rail is abandoned.
Given the economic climate, it is tempting to think we could abandon long-term investments. But this would actually cost taxpayers more. Given growth, we will have to spend a predicted $170 billion on expanded California airports and highways if we forgo the $98 billion high-speed rail investment. That would waste $72 billion – hardly a value for taxpayers.
The cost of inaction also extends to the broader economic health and competitiveness of our state and nation. Our infrastructure is literally decades behind other parts of the world. Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train opened nearly a half-century ago, and has made 4.9 billion passenger trips since. In Europe, as if domestic lines like France’s TGV and Germany’s Intercity-Express weren’t enough, mobility was transformed when the Continent and the British Isles were linked by Eurostar high-speed trains 17 years ago.
The economic benefits extend beyond just making business travel easier – as an anecdote, just ask the Walt Disney Co., which made a tidy sum off the visit to its theme park outside Paris by yours truly on a childhood day trip from London on the Eurostar.
China, meanwhile, is expanding its 3,800-mile system, spending $94.4 billion this year alone – an amount almost as much as our system will cost over 20 years with inflation. While the Chinese have faced bribery and construction problems, the real “kickback” ultimately comes to the community – which sees economic growth as a permanent benefit of high-speed rail.
Headlines in California of a massive “boondoggle” simply miss the point. Decades-old high-speed rail systems in Japan and Europe are anything but an albatross. Indeed, they provide enormous value across the economic and cultural spectrums. Japan built its first high-speed rail line after seeing traffic reach maximum capacity, and now high-speed rail linkages have dramatically cut travel times.