Wheels Coming Off High Speed Rail

When California voters barely approved a $9.95 billion bond measure for High Speed Rail in 2008 they had no idea how soon they would learn the true meaning of the phrase “being railroaded.” As more about this project is revealed the backlash from the public and political leadership is sure to grow.

For purposes of full disclosure Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association ran the unsuccessful campaign against Prop 1A (not to be confused with 2009’s Prop 1A an attempt to raise $16 billion in new taxes). Our most potent weapon was a devastating study by the Reason Foundation which revealed that the proponents’ representations regarding costs fare price and profitability were pure fantasy. But from the start we had an uphill battle convincing voters how poorly thought out this measure was. The California Legislature had already stacked the deck by providing such a biased title and summary for the measure that the issue of that deception is still the subject of litigation today. The deceptive ballot material in addition to the campaign contributions from those who would profit from the project was enough to ensure victory at the polls — albeit by a very small margin.

Now our predictions have come true. A headline from the San Jose Mercury News last week reads “State High-speed Train Rides To Be Costlier Ridership Lower Than Promised To Voters.” Describing the most recent “business plan” for the HSR reporter Mike Rosenberg writes:

“The average ticket on the bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles is now estimated to cost about $105 or 83 percent of comparable airfare. Last year the state said prices would be set at 50 percent of comparable airfare and predicted a ticket from San Francisco to Los Angeles would cost $55.” This near doubling of the projected fare price will have a major impact on ridership: “As a result of the higher fares state officials now think the service will attract 41 million annual riders by 2035 down from last year’s prediction of 55 million passengers by 2030.”

Although this revised plan calls into question the entire viability of the project the news is bound to get a lot worse. In short even these revised figures by the Authority were born in dreamland.

Another fantasy: “The cost of the project – recently pegged at $33.6 billion in 2008 dollars – is now estimated at $42.6 billion in time-of-construction dollars.” Sure that’s a projected increase of about $10 billion which is jaw-dropping by itself. But the Reason study suggests the final costs will be more than twice the revised projection. Many who analyze the trend lines of these megaprojects think that if it is ever built the cost will far exceed $100 billion.

In a bit of poetic justice another recent revelation will cause some hardcore backers of the project — environmentalists and urban activists — to suffer a case of buyers’ remorse. True some environmentalists who took the time to actually analyze the project concluded that it would do more harm than good. But groups like the Sierra Club jumped on board without critical analysis. Like so many others they applied a simple mindset: Cars bad. Trains good.

But it turns out that from an environmental perspective this is not so simple. Recent studies by the University of California regarding the environment life-cycle assessment of various passenger transportation systems cast specific doubt on California’s high speed rail project. In reporting on those studies the Institute for Transportation Studies noted that “if high-speed rail draws only half the ridership it says it will attract its environmental performance will be twice as bad per passenger mile traveled. And if compared to typical aircraft travel in situations where 70 percent of rail passenger seats are filled high-speed rail performs worse (the crossover occurs when high-speed rail achieves 65 percent of estimated ridership compared against current aircraft utilization rates at 70 percent).”

If building California’s High Speed Rail project results in millions of metric tons of carbon going into the atmosphere and its ridership is substantially less than needed to make the project viable — which is the current trend line — a legitimate question is whether HSR will inflict more damage to the environment than if it were never built.

The only good news is that it is still not too late to pull the plug on the entire HSR scheme. Legal authority exists to simply refuse to issue any more bonds or provide appropriations. Better yet if the Legislature had the courage to do so it would put the issue back before the voters and instead of telling them a story of sugar plum fairies tell the truth about costs and environmental impact.

But the chances the California Legislature will do the right thing here are zero. There are too many moneyed interests too many cows to be milked to give up on this lucrative project to expect that rational thought will win the day. Between the p.r. firms the contractors and bond brokers they will push this horrible project as aggressively as possible before the real truth is realized. By then they hope it will be too late for California to reverse itself.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.