Fast Track to Nowhere
By John D. Turner
6 Jun 2012

When you wanted to go somewhere, when was the last time you took a train? Have you ever taken a train? Have you ever even seen a train – other than a freight train? Did you know that in other countries, people regularly ride trains?

I am sure that you are aware of the existence of trains. Most people have seen a freight train in the distance at some point in their lives. For some, it is a regular occurrence. And many people are aware of the existence of AMTRAC, the national passenger train service heavily subsidized by the federal government; that would be our tax money at work. Of course, many people don’t choose to ride it – which is why it is heavily subsidized by our tax dollars.

So why don’t more people ride trains? Why do most people choose to fly or drive their own cars, or even take a bus when traveling long distance?

I have heard it said that people don’t take a train because first, trains are slow, second, they are uncomfortable, and finally, train depots are frequently located in inconvenient locations, near the center of town, and in parts of the city that are no longer considered “safe” or desirable to go, particularly at night.

While these things may be true in many locations, they are equally true for buses as well. And yet, there are competing bus lines that travel cross country. These buses are notable in that they are not subsidized by the taxpayer; they are run by private companies, not quasi-governmental “corporations.” And yet, people ride them, and they turn a profit, enabling them to stay in business. So why don’t more people ride trains?

There are many in government who would like very much for you to ride trains. Light rail proposals come up all the time here in San Antonio, despite the fact that our city bus service lacks adequate ridership and is completely subsidized by the city government. If people had to pay the fares that would be required to pay for the system without subsidies, the already miniscule ridership would fall dramatically from miniscule to microscopic.

Part of the problem with public transportation systems vice private transportation systems is that public transportation systems by their very nature have to serve everyone. That means that no matter how obscure and unprofitable the route, if there is someone there who wants to ride the bus, there must be a bus there for them to ride, even if they are the only one.

And the services must be available to everyone. Every bus must be able to accommodate wheelchairs, and people riding bicycles, should they suddenly decide they want to take a bus instead of pedal their bike.

The Holy Grail of trains is, of course, high speed rail. There are many, particularly in the public sector that apparently swoon every time they see one of those high-speed beauties cruising along in Japan and can’t help but thinking “gee, I wish we had one of those back home!”

So after a lot of talking, the State of California decided to take action. They are the “environmental” state after all. And what is more environmentally friendly than a high-speed bullet train?

Those who seem hell-bent on forcing us out of our cars and onto trains have been touting high-speed rail for years. This time, all the stars have aligned to make this finally a possibility; California dumped their wet-blanket Republican governor, and elected a good Democratic one; the United States finally saw the light and elected a progressive Democrat to the highest office in the land. Additionally, fortune smiled, combining to provide a Democrat led Senate and House, along with a truly dismal economy.

Why, you might ask, would a dismal economy be a good thing for high-speed rail? Well, because combined with that progressive Democrat President, House, and Senate, a dismal economy calls for high levels of “stimulus” spending in order to “jump start” the economy and provide immediate “shovel ready” jobs to “get Americans back to work.”

Because, you know, most Americans that are out of work are the ones who build highways and railroads.

So the State of California came up with “a good idea.” Why not, they asked, build a high speed rail line connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco, a distance of 382 miles from city center to city center? Driving takes between 6-7.5 hours, depending on traffic and weather. At 220 mph, it would only take around 1.5 hours (not including intermediate stops) to cover the distance. Sounds like a winner to me!

They put it on the statewide ballot in 2008, and a majority of the voters agreed, with 53 percent agreeing. That agreement allowed the state to raise $10 billion in bonds for the project. They were able to get another $3.5 billion from the Obama administration in the form of stimulus money.

Fast forward to today. Construction on this high-speed rail line is finally scheduled to begin later this year, in 2012. Just this one project should begin to give you a snapshot of why the “stimulus” failed to work. The concept of a stimulus is something quick that, well, stimulates something. Paying for something that won’t start until four years later is hardly “stimulating.” But I digress.

Of course, the high speed rail line won’t go from city center to city center. And it won’t go “as the crow flies” either. There is terrain to take into consideration and right-of-ways that must be purchased and negotiated. The plan is to start in the Central Valley, near Merced, a town of 80,000 people, and drive 300 miles of track south over the next 10 years, reaching the northern outskirts of LA. The northern section to San Francisco is not scheduled to be finished until 2028. But if all goes well, in just 16 short years your kids (or perhaps your grandkids) could be riding in style on a bullet train between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

If of course it ever actually gets started, much less finished. Current estimates are that it will take another $54.9 billion to complete the project. And who has ever heard of a government project of any size, much less one this large, that ever came in both on time and under budget? In all likelihood, it will not only take longer, but cost much more to boot.

Some notable examples in our nation’s recent history include Boston’s “Big Dig”, estimated to cost $2.6 billion with a completion date of 1998, which ultimately was completed in 2005 at a cost of $14.6 billion. Then there was the Denver Airport, expected to cost $1.7 billion when authorized in 1989, which was finally completed in 1995 at a cost of $4.8 billion. And these are projects that were actually completed. There are many more where billions are spent and ultimately the project is cancelled.

Which could ultimately be the case with the LA to San Francisco high-speed rail line.

So far, $10 billion has been raised in bonds, another $3.5 billion “donated” by American taxpayers (most of whom will never have any benefit from this project), and an estimate of another $54.9 billion required to complete the project. That is a total of $68.4 billion. If we have an outcome like the Big Dig, that cost could balloon to as much as $384 billion with a completion date of who-knows-when. On the other hand, it could be a “Denver Airport” sized fiasco, in which case the cost could be “only” around $193 billion. Yikes!

Then again, perhaps it already is. The California High-Speed Rail Authority, the government agency overseeing the project, projected in the 4th quarter of 2011 a cost increase to $98.5 billion with a completion date of 2033. The original completion date and cost were 2020 and $45 billion respectively. The current cost of $68.4 billion (still $23 billion over the original estimate) was arrived at by reducing the speed of the trains and using sections of existing slow track.

So when all is said and done, the “bullet” train may be more like a “BB” train.

Then of course, you have to find people to ride the darned thing. Right now they are saying they expect ticket prices to be around $123; one way; today, not in 2028, when the entire thing is projected to be finished. Who knows what a ticket will cost then; certainly not $123. Even today, finding enough people who would pay a one-way ticket of $123 to make the trip on a day-to-day basis would be problematic. After all, once you get there you still have to find transportation to take you where you want to go. It only goes to the outskirts of both cities. LA is gigantic in size.

And a $246 round trip probably rules out people who want to live in LA and commute daily to San Francisco, and vice versa, so don’t expect too much commuter traffic.

And where exactly is the State of California going to get the money to complete this project? Remember that poor economy we were talking about earlier as a “plus?” It hasn’t gotten any better in the last four years. California has a huge looming budget deficit, currently over $16 billion and growing; there has even been talk about bankruptcy. Some say California is “too big to fail,” and that the Federal Government will have no choice but to bail them out. Of course, that presupposes the Federal Government has the money to do so, which it doesn’t.

Some say not to worry; everything will be ok in the long run. California is the world’s ninth largest economy after all, and the economic downturn can’t last forever. Others are not so sanguine. And taxpayers, who are now facing tax increases of all kinds, including state income taxes, and austerity measures for public spending, including a five percent pay cut for state workers, are beginning to ask if this is indeed the time for the state to be spending billions on a high-speed bullet train.

Many in California are voting with their feet, fleeing the higher taxes and chasing the jobs they no longer have. Merced, where the rail line is to begin, currently has one of the highest home foreclosure rates in the country.

But who knows? Perhaps the people working on the high-speed rail can afford to buy up some of those distressed properties. Perhaps spending on this project will bootstrap the California economy. Perhaps.

I think it is more likely that California will end up with a large stretch of high-speed rail, emanating from Merced, which connects neither to Los Angeles, nor to San Francisco. A high-speed “rail to nowhere,” paid for by California taxpayers and the rest of us in America to boot. A rusting testament to the vision of Jerry Brown, the current governor and proponent of high-speed rail since the 1970s, and those of his ilk, who have no problem spending other people’s tax money on their ideas for future utopia.

That darned George Bush! This must be all his fault, no?