Slow-Speed Rail

by Reihan Salam

In the course of a larger critique of California Gov. Jerry Brown, Lanhee Chen offers the following on California’s high-speed rail project:

Brown has insisted on hyping the state’s chimerical and high-priced high-speed rail project over other important priorities — including some critical infrastructure needs such as road and bridge repair and dam replacement. The project began when California voters in 2008 approved the issuance of $10 billion in bonds to fund construction of a $45 billion high-speed rail system connecting the state’s major urban areas. Voters were promised high-speed trains that would connect Los Angeles with San Francisco in less than three hours.

But the project has been besieged by cost overruns, delays and mismanaged expectations. The project is now expected to cost $68 billion, and that price tag was only made possible when plans to construct high-speed rail lines leading into Los Angeles and San Francisco were scrapped in favor of a plan to have high-speed trains share track with slower trains. But this means that a nonstop journey from the Bay Area to Southern California will take almost four hours, and as long as six hours if intermediate stops are included.

Worst yet, a recent study by the Reason Foundation concluded that taxpayers could be on the hook for up to $373 million a year in operating costs and financial losses once the high-speed rail system is up and running.

California is the cradle of the self-driving car, which has the potential to greatly reduce congestion and emissions while increasing travel speeds, and it is also home to several large cities that are underserved by transit. Investing in high-speed rail rather than, say, increasing density and improving transit access in coastal California is profoundly foolish. By the project’s planned completion date of 2033, high-speed rail will be a legacy technology that meets the needs of relatively few Californians, yet it will have crowded out public investment in projects that could reduce commuting time and raise incomes for low- and middle-income workers (non-drivers as well drivers) for decades. 

The Agenda

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