The Latest on California HSR

by Reihan Salam

Mike Rosenberg of the Mercury News reports:

The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s new cost estimates released Tuesday show the initial stretch of construction between Merced and Bakersfield will cost $10 billion to $13.9 billion depending on how it’s built. Project planners had previously pegged the section at $6.8 billion.

If the cost of the entire project balloons at the same pace as the Central Valley section, the San Francisco-to-Anaheim railroad would cost from $63 billion to $87 billion, similar to what independent analysts have been predicting. And those figures do not include inflation, which could push the final cost toward a staggering $100 billion.

When California voters approved the project in 2008, the state said it would cost $33 billion, but it soared to $43 billion a year later — already making it the single largest public works project in the nation. Even now, the state only has about one-fourth of the money needed to fund the entire rail line and no clear plan on how to secure the rest.

This is a national embarrassment, particularly as the mobility options of California workers, particularly less-affluent California workers, are severely constrained by congestion and mass transit agencies plagued by crippling work rules, compensation costs, and tight restrictions on equipment. Spending some small fraction of the planned HSR money on building dedicated lanes for bus rapid transit would make a difference, as might spending a larger share of it on a Subway to the Sea along a densified Wilshire corridor. 

Some of our interlocutors don’t seem to understand that there is such a thing as a budget constraint. Money that is spent on HSR will not be spent on other priorities, as the public, rightly in my view, has a limited appetite for borrowing. One can make a plausible case that better intracity transit options will greatly enhance the value of real estate around transit nodes. HSR, in contrast, is likely to benefit a far smaller constituency. To be sure, it might be very sensible to invest in improving speed in certain corridors, e.g., Los Angeles to San Diego, as this can be done at reasonable cost. But people don’t seem to appreciate the difficulties involved in securing right-of-way in and around Silicon Valley, the value of competing uses of land, and, to repeat, the bang-for-buck relative to other transit investments.

What we’re seeing here is a perfect illustration of Alon Levy’s politicals vs. technicals framework. Politicals, for whatever reason, seem to value HSR for its totemic value. Technicals are more concerned about increasing mobility options for the largest possible number of people given a realistic budget constraint.  

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.