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High-Speed Liberalism

When I give speeches about California politics (particularly when I’m talking to out-of-state crowds), I almost always open on the same note: California has traditionally been a bellwether for the rest of the nation. Traditionally, that has been a source of hope. These days, it’s a threat.

In my newest weekly column for the Center for Individual Freedom, I look at the reductio ad absurdum of California liberalism: the seemingly invincible plan for a statewide high-speed rail network, which continues to move forward despite a jaw-dropping record of broken promises and outright lies. From the piece:

The comedy of errors began with the 2008 ballot initiative [that approved plans for high-speed rail], whose supporters were utopian in thought and intemperate in speech. During the initiative campaign, advocates for the project claimed that it would replace up to 92 million car trips annually, the sort of wild-eyed forecasting the world hasn’t seen since the days of the Soviet politburo.

As enthusiasm for high-speed rail has cooled, those projections have declined alongside the poll numbers, with estimates now running between 28 and 37 million riders per year. But as Stanford transportation historian Richard White noted late last year in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, “If California high-speed rail captured the same percentage of riders as Amtrak’s Acela does today in the Northeast corridor, an area with a long tradition of rail travel and a higher population than California, it would have about 5 million riders, not 28 million to 37 million.”

Similar failures have been ubiquitous. The project’s price tag, pegged at $40 billion when it appeared on the ballot in 2008, has now swelled to nearly $100 billion (more than 5 percent of the state’s entire annual economic product), with expenditures including more than $12 million that have already been spent on PR alone. In January, the state-appointed California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group suggested delaying the project indefinitely because it lacked something so basic as a viable business model.

A lawsuit against the project filed by Kings County (located in the state’s Central Valley, where the first segments are to be built) alleges that no research has been done to establish the speed of the trains, even though Prop 1A contained a legally-binding requirement that they average 140 miles per hour.

The Center for Investigate Reporting’s California Watch quoted Kings County’s lawyer, Michael Brady, as saying, “All over the state … they’re going to use commuter trains, Caltrain, light rail in Stockton. You’re not going to be able to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco in six hours.” Consider, by way of contrast, that flight times between the two cities average about an hour.

You can read the piece in its entirety here.

  1. Mel Foil

    Maybe they can put a casino car on each train. Then, you don’t have to give up your gambling just because your only remaining vehicle got repossessed.

  2. Pilli

    Amtrak currently runs the San Joaquin trains from Bakersfield to Sacramento and to Oakland.  According to their own numbers there were only 977, 834 total riders on the San Joaquin trains.  Bakersfield is in their top 25 most traveled stations in the country at # 24 with a total ridership of 476, 767.  The first segment of HSR goes from Bakersfield to Madera.  And they are going to support it with less than 500K riders a year (assuming they capture all the San Joaquin riders)?

  3. The King Prawn

    My real fear in boondoggles like this is that once in place the government will have a reason to exert even more control over citizens to make them do what is best for them, i.e. make driving prohibitively expensive in order to drive people to ride the trains.

  4. John Murdoch

    Troy–

    In your piece you quote an incorrect analogy:

    “But as Stanford transportation historian Richard White noted late last year in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, “If California high-speed rail captured the same percentage of riders as Amtrak’s Acela does today in the Northeast corridor, an area with a long tradition of rail travel and a higher population than California, it would have about 5 million riders, not 28 million to 37 million.”

    That’s the entire Northeast Corridor: Boston-New Haven-New York-Newark-Trenton-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington. Included in that route are the #1, #6, #7, and #10 largest metro areas in the country–and each of those cities has an existing commuter rail system (as rapid transit) that feeds passengers to Amtrak. 

    Here’s what you’re missing: transportation economics posits that the number of trips between two cities decreases as the square of the distance between them. In short, LA to San Francisco is similar in distance to Boston-Washington. But CalDoggle won’t approach Acela’s passenger counts, because the vast bulk of Acela’s passengers don’t go from Boston to DC.

    (More) 

  5. John Murdoch

    (Continued from #4)

    A big chunk of Acela trips are between closer city pairs: Boston-Providence, Boston-New Haven, New Haven-New York, New York-Trenton, Trenton-Philadelphia, Philadelphia-Baltimore, and so forth. Those are included in the Acela passenger counts you describe. 

    But wait–it gets worse.

    The Northeast Corridor isn’t just one line–it is the spine on which commuter trains in Boston (MBTA), Providence (MBTA), New Haven (Metro North), New York (Metro North, LIRR, NJ Transit, MTA), Newark (NJT), Trenton (NJT, SEPTA), Philadelphia (NJT, SEPTA), Wilmington (SEPTA), Baltimore (MARC), and Washington, D.C. (MARC, VRE) all connect (and in many cases operate on the same tracks). Acela also stops at Newark Liberty Airport, and at BWI. Acela even has a code-share agreement with United Airlines, offering through ticketing. There’s a huge feeder market for Acela.

    CalDoggle won’t even come close to Acela’s figures.

    And don’t forget–Acela doesn’t cover its costs. Even though right-of-way acquisition for the entire line was done before 1860, and all the bridges and tunnels for the entire route were built and paid for by the Pennsylvania Railroad before 1940. 

  6. Wade Moore

    What about the TGV model?  My question is doo they make money or is that system still heavily subsidized?  I have traveled through France on the TGV and it is wonderful.  I think when people think of high-speed rail that is the system they think of…   

  7. Roberto

    For those who truly wish to drink deep of the cynicism of Sacramento politics our local boy Mr. Walters serves up a heady brew:

    Where do we buy tickets?

    Of course, that’s just facetious. Chances are fairly strong that Brown will never live to see the northern and southern halves of the state linked by a 200-mph bullet train, nor anyone else on the high side of 60 years old…

    …And that brings us to what may have been the game all along – spending not on the bullet train itself but on so-called “connectivity” projects in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area.

    ...the bullet train bond issue was to lure voters from throughout the state into spending their money on urban transit services that they would be otherwise unwilling to finance.

    The net result, therefore, may be easier commutes for residents of those areas and almost nothing else.

    Two items of interest should be noted about Mr. Walters: he is very knowledgeable about Sacramento politics and he generally attempts to attribute the best motives to our Legislature. This is a journalist sympathetic to our local cretins.

  8. Paul DeRocco

    Even if the cost resists the temptation of surpassing $100 billion, which I doubt, and if the ridership doesn’t sink below five million a year, that still represents a staggering level of subsidy. Figure that the time value of a lump sum is somewhere in the neighborhood of 5% per year, $5 billion in this case: they’d have to charge $1000 a ticket just to pay for the construction. JetBlue charges $89. Is even California dumb enough to shovel that much money into the firebox just to keep the train running?

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