It’s not often that California’s business community finds itself at odds with the policies of the state’s Republican politicians, but the controversial high-speed rail project has found a way to drive a stake between their often-aligned interests.
When you consider that the project’s budget has doubled over the last decade to $64 billion and travel time estimates between Los Angeles and San Francisco have risen by an hour to 3 ½ hours, the concerns of GOP senators and other critics, such as City National Bank Chief Executive Russell Goldsmith, seem rational. Republican legislators have continually tried to repeal or scrap funding for the project, to no avail. However, they were able to convince the California High Speed Rail Authority to shrink cost estimates to $64 billion after they had ballooned to nearly $120 billion.
But California businesses – including nearly 50 in Los Angeles alone, with more likely to follow – are set to reap billions of dollars after winning contracts to help build parts of the system. That money will go toward hiring thousands of employees for badly needed middle-class jobs over the next decade here and across the state. Those numbers help business groups, including the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, get behind the effort. Yet their support hasn’t been nearly as vocal as it was for passage of Measure M, and that is telling.
While the potential economic benefits to business of high-speed rail are hard to ignore, there remains great risk that the bills for ever-ballooning costs will end up in the hands of taxpayers. If delays continue thanks to budget squabbles and additional legal challenges and community objections, all of us would be left with outturned pockets and no tangible results to show for it.
What should perhaps be most disconcerting is that tickets on high-speed rail trains would only save riders 15 percent off of airline fares, which is unlikely to convince many people to choose that option given the much longer transit time.
While throwing the high-speed baby out with the bathwater seems like too drastic a measure, perhaps some further revisions are in order.