Politics & Policy

Slow Death of the Train to Nowhere

California Governor Jerry Brown (center) at a groundbreaking ceremony for the state’s high-speed rail project in Fresno, Calif., January 6, 2015. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
Mounting problems may end high-speed-rail projects in California and Texas.

A decade ago, high-speed rail was the new, new thing. In 2008, California voters narrowly approved initial bonds for a train that was supposed to go 220 miles an hour and deliver passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in two hours and 40 minutes. The next year, the Obama administration’s stimulus bill allocated money for it and several other high-speed lines. But soon the push for trains slowed to a crawl, and now it appears to be on life support.

In 2011, the new GOP governors of Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin turned down federal money for trains. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker told me: “Washington may help pay for building it, but we’d be stuck paying the operating costs of a boondoggle.”

But California’s transportation planners, who never encountered a boondoggle they couldn’t embrace, pressed on despite mounting costs and construction delays. In 2015, desperate to beat a deadline that would have meant the end of federal funding, they began construction on a 119-mile segment of track in the state’s sparsely settled Central Valley. Fewer than 3 percent of the train’s potential riders live along that portion of the route, but backers believed that if they built the Central Valley segment, the sunken costs would convince state legislators to find money for the remaining segments.

That is increasingly unlikely. In January, the California High Speed Rail Authority released its new business plan. Assemblyman Jim Patterson, a train critic who represents Fresno, promptly labeled it a “going-out-of-business plan.”

According to the Authority’s own numbers, the train’s costs have soared to a likely $77 billion — more than double the original cost estimate of $32 billion. If anything goes wrong, the tab for the project could hit $98 billion, or 50 times the current annual appropriation for the nationwide Amtrak system. As for delays, the Authority conceded that rail service on the portion of the route from Bakersfield to San Jose probably won’t begin until 2029, a full nine years after the entire system was supposed to be complete.

As for the “high speed” aspect of the train, the Authority now admits that the two-hour-and-40-minute travel time that helped sell the initial bonding of the train in 2008 will now slip to, at best, three hours and 30 minutes. Travel time on some runs will be up to five hours.

Only 46 percent of likely voters in California still support the rail project.

Release of the Authority’s depressing business plan has finally sobered up some experts. Earlier this month, Louis Thompson, one of the nation’s top rail experts (he chairs the project’s official peer-review committee), told legislators that the project is “at a critical point when difficult decisions need to be made.” After years of stonewalling, the California legislature finally approved an audit of the entire project. The legislature has also weighed in to criticize “significant uncertainties” about the train and its lack of a “complete funding plan.” Just this month, the U.S. Transportation Department announced that it will review the use of the $3.5 billion in federal grants that have flowed into the project.

The latest statewide poll on the high-speed railway was conducted in March by the Public Policy Institute. It found that only 46 percent of likely voters still support the rail project. I’ve little doubt that number will tumble as it becomes clear how key public services will be squeezed as the train gobbles up more cash.

Let’s hope that California’s sad experience informs residents of another mega state before they run off the rails building their own high-speed railway. Private investors in Texas have created a Texas Central Railway (TCR) project that they promise will deliver a $10 billion bullet train. They pledge that the train will speed passengers along the 240-mile corridor between Houston and Dallas in under 90 minutes. The project would use the same equipment made famous by Japan’s Shinkansen bullet-train line. The train’s boosters claim that it will have the economic impact  equivalent to “hosting 180 Super Bowls.”

Learning from California’s cost overruns, Texas’s Train Trippers have vowed not to use any federal, state, or local tax money for construction. If they can’t strike deals with property owners along the route, they will ask for eminent-domain powers to seize the land. It’s a virtual certainty they would need those powers, since nine of the eleven counties the train would run through have gone on record opposing it.

Also opposed are taxpayer groups who believe that the TCR investors will seek out opportunities for backdoor public financing. Indeed, Ron Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas who is now employed by TCR, has let slip that the group, despite its public promise to steer clear of federal money, will “aggressively pursue” federal loans for the project. Government loans are often forgiven or forgotten, with taxpayers left holding the bag.

Beyond cost, there are other reasons to be skeptical of the Texas train. Current plans for it will not have it connect the city centers of Dallas and Houston, with the stations on either end stopping only at the outskirts of each city. The proposed Japanese Shinkansen technology isn’t compatible with standards used in the U.S., Europe, or the United Kingdom, so using it in Texas would limit the future ability to adopt other train systems to expand the network.

We would be far better off to follow the example of most industrialized countries by transferring our nation’s air-traffic-control system to a public-private partnership that could more quickly introduce new technology and reduce airport delays.

I have traveled on high-speed trains in China, Germany, France, and Sweden. In densely populated countries with crowded air corridors, they are a pleasant, safe, and justifiable way to travel. But we should recognize that a continental nation like the U.S. isn’t as suited for them and that our environmental laws make construction very difficult and time-consuming.

We would be far better off to follow the example of most industrialized countries by transferring our nation’s air-traffic-control system to a public-private partnership that could more quickly introduce new technology and reduce airport delays. A bill to do just that was endorsed last year by both airlines and the union of air-traffic-control operators, but it got bogged down in Congress. Let’s work on improving what we know makes sense — reliable inter-city air transportation — before chasing the costly delusion of high-speed rail.

 

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