Los Angeles Business Journal

High-Speed Rail Still Fits Bill Despite Higher Cost

OPED: California voters had a long-term vision when they approved the project in 2008. By DAVID C. MURPHY Monday, November 7, 2011

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.

Yes, the California High-Speed Rail Authority is imperfect, and the process of building California’s system will surely be imperfect. But that’s no reason to abandon a project with the potential to transform our state. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, a Republican, said earlier this year, “If President Dwight D. Eisenhower had waited until he had all the cash on hand, all the lines drawn on a map and all the naysayers on board, America wouldn’t have an interstate highway system. We stand at a similar crossroads today when it comes to high-speed rail.”

Eurostar’s example

The impact of Eurostar is a useful example for California. The distance on Eurostar between London and Paris is fairly comparable with a Los Angeles-San Francisco trip on California high-speed rail. Sometimes Northern California and Southern California can seem like entirely different states – certainly, England and France were dramatically more separate before the introduction of Eurostar. Eurostar has slashed barriers and doubled the travel market between the two cities.

Eurostar says “an entire ‘Eurostar Generation’ has been influenced by the convenience of fast city centre to city centre journeys, giving rise to an explosion of cultural exchange – artistic, culinary, socially and employment-based – and this in turn has exposed the true potential of a modern transport link.” Imagine if we doubled the travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco – the effect not just on tourism spending and business partnerships, but on cultural, artistic and intangible factors would be dramatic. One can’t put a price on the value of friends, relatives and colleagues being able to visit each other more often.

Statistics show the economic benefits to citizens can be considerable. High-speed rail hubs attract businesses, foster development, and provide linkages to jobs elsewhere.

Take Lille, France, as an example. Two decades ago it was struggling and had about a 40 percent unemployment rate. Now, on the crossroads of the Eurostar and the TGV, with direct links to Paris; Brussels, Belgium; and London, unemployment has plunged to 13 percent, about the French average.

Boondoggle? The real boondoggle would be not building this system, and turning our back to future generations.

David C. Murphy is president of Angelenos Against Gridlock, which strives to improve transportation infrastructure in Los Angeles County.