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Tuesday, Aug 9, 2022
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Digging Ever Deeper into the Hole?

The California High-Speed Rail Authority is once again considering changes to the proposed route and the construction schedule. Rail officials have apparently realized that by starting construction in the Central Valley, they’ve begun with a segment that will struggle to attract riders and that no one in Los Angeles or San Francisco will see. All Angelenos will hear about the rail segment out there are the construction costs going up and up. Officials fear that they’ll run out of money and that will be the only segment that ever gets built. So the rail authority now wants to fast-track the construction of a segment between Burbank and Palmdale.  Richard Katz, a former state assemblyman and current member of the Metrolink board, all but admitted politics are at play when he told the Los Angeles Times, “The visibility will make it real and people can see where their tax dollars are being spent.” The California High-Speed Rail Authority is also studying a new tunnel option that would take the train under the San Gabriel Mountains connecting Burbank and Palmdale. The tunnel would be shorter, and thus faster, than the current route paralleling the 14 freeway. It would also ease objections coming from Santa Clarita about the train running through the middle of town and the need to seize land in the area for the train’s tracks.  Tunneling isn’t cheap, however, and the rail authority still doesn’t have a sensible, transparent business plan showing where it is going to get the money to build the system. The $10 billion authorized by voters when Proposition 1A passed in 2008 won’t even cover the costs of constructing the initial segment between Merced and Bakersfield.  When Prop 1A passed, state leaders were counting on more federal funding, which is extremely unlikely to arrive in today’s political climate. In fact, new House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, has vowed to “do all that I can to ensure not one dollar of federal funding goes to boondoggles like (California’s) high-speed rail.” As a result, the rail project will have to rely on state funds. Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature agreed to send 25 percent of the state’s cap-and-trade revenue to support high-speed rail. However, that money won’t be nearly enough. That plan, like so many parts of this project, may also get bogged down in court. It has already prompted several lawsuits because the cap-and-trade funds are supposed to go to projects that reduce greenhouse gases, which the train system won’t do for decades, if ever. The California High-Speed Rail Authority also is counting on private investors to cover some of the construction costs. But there aren’t any private rail companies lining up to put billions of their own dollars on the line. One reason for the lack of private interest is dubious ridership forecasts. The authority has wildly overestimated its ridership predictions. A 2013 Reason Foundation study showed that ridership estimates are 65 percent to 77 percent too high. As a result, the state will likely need $120 million to $370 million every year in taxpayer subsidies to cover the system’s operating costs and financial losses. Given the lack of funding to build the system and the annual financial deficits that it will likely incur if built, it’s hard to fathom why the state is moving ahead. Proponents claim that California needs an alternative to planes and cars because airports and highways are at their breaking points. Yet, airlines are buying larger planes, and air traffic control modernization will increase air travel capacity. And cars offer flexibility that rail cannot. Others point to successful high-speed rail lines in France and Japan and argue the United States needs to join the club. But those countries built high-speed rail because conventional rail travel was busting at the seams. And those countries have different spatial structures because they were developed around walking and mass transit. When the Tokyo-Osaka line was built in Japan, fewer than 25 percent of driving-age residents owned a car. The current car ownership rate in California is 85 percent. Passengers are willing to take high-speed rail in those places because travel times are competitive with planes. But when the rail authority decided California’s system needed to serve the Central Valley, the two hour, 40 minute trip that voters were promised from Los Angeles to San Francisco turned into a four hour odyssey, which would be much slower than air travel – even factoring in getting to the airport, security and other delays. The rail authority keeps tinkering with the route and construction schedule hoping taxpayers won’t notice there’s not a real business plan in place. The latest gamesmanship, like shifting construction to Los Angeles and considering an expensive tunnel, doesn’t do anything to address the proposal’s biggest problems: not enough money, not enough demand and a route chosen for political, not transportation, reasons that is much slower than what was promised to voters. What could go wrong? Baruch Feigenbaum is a transportation policy analyst at Reason Foundation.

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