Los Angeles to San Francisco in two and a half hours?
Proposition 1A promises the first step to an exhilarating 220 mph high-speed train running between San Diego and Sacramento, with connections to the Bay Area, fully functional by 2030.
California High-Speed Rail Authority’s current business model estimates the cost of a ticket at about $50 per person and predicts a billion dollar profit, assuming 117 million passengers per year by 2030.
Essentially Prop 1A is a debate between the economic feasibility of HSR in California and the environmental benefits of a foreign oil-independent, efficient transportation system.
California High-Speed Rail would help achieve California’s greenhouse gas reduction goals by replacing car and airplane trips with rail trips, said Stuart Cohen, executive director of the Transportation and Land Use Coalition, in a written statement.
“HSR travel is anticipated to reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions by up to 12 billion pounds of CO2 per year,” he said. “And while the price tag is steep – over $30 billion to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles through the Central Valley – it pales in comparison to the cost of new highway and airport expansions.“
A 2006 Caltrans estimate to widen Highway 99 from four lanes to six, for example, would cost $6 billion, and meeting interstate requirements of eight lanes was estimated at $20 billion, Cohen said.
“Californians will continue to demand mobility, especially as the state grows to 50 million people by 2030,” he said. “It is time to give it to them in the form of a zero-emission [HSR] system that propels California into the 21st century.“
Yet during a time of economic downturn, with California over $57 billion in debt, the $9.95 billion bond that Prop 1A calls for may be just the tip of the iceberg for California HSR funding if federal and private sector funding are not sufficient.
With Wall Street credit markets in crisis, a total estimated price tag of $45 billion for the project and the proposed financial plan for the rail system put together by Lehman Brothers when the market was booming, HSR may not be on the ballot at the right time.
“Unfortunately I think the taxpayer will end up being on the hook for quite a bit,” said Adam Summers, a policy analyst for Los Angeles-based libertarian think tank The Reason Foundation. “The likelihood is that costs will go higher than they predict.“
Similar large scale transportation projects, such as the so-called Big Dig in Boston, the San Francisco to Oakland Bay Bridge project and the light rail in Los Angeles all had significant cost overruns, he said.
Originally estimated at $2.8 billion in 1985, as of 2006 over $14.6 billion had been spent on Boston’s Big Dig, and in 2007 the project was officially turned over to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.
Though any construction contract of this large a scale is bound to have difficulties, the estimated $45 billion total required for California’s high-speed rail could be closer to $65 to 81 billion, according to a Citizens Against Government Waste study, Summers said.
In addition, a recent due diligence report authored by two Reason Foundation expert policy analysts found that the 117 million riders per year by 2030 would actually be closer to 23 million, less than a quarter of the predicted number.
“Even at a population of 45 million in California you can’t expect every man, woman and child to ride the train 3 times per year,” said Morris Brown, vice president of Derail HSR, a group opposing Prop 1A.
“They have unbelievable expectations, one of which is the $55 fare. If you look at HSR ticket prices in Europe or Japan they range from $145 to $245, so it’s an absolutely outrageous claim.“
Because ridership, revenue and ticket prices are interdependent, the projected cost of a ticket could vary significantly depending upon the actual ridership, and the idea of the HSR making a profit is far-fetched, he said.
“The [HSR] in Japan, which has four or fives times the population density of California, makes a small profit, and all of the systems in Europe have tons of subsidies coming in because they are state-run,” Brown said. “Besides, no passenger train in the U.S. has ever made a profit. It’s another project that will lead to a higher deficit.“
Yet the measure is not a complete risk.
The “backbone” of the HSR system from Los Angeles to San Francisco is projected to cost $33 billion, 75 percent of which would come from federal and private sources.
If federal and private funding is not procured and the HSR line is never built, the state’s losses would be under $2 billion.
Supporters of Prop 1A say it is exactly what California needs now.
UC Davis Students for Barack Obama member Ryan Loney supports Prop 1A because it will create hundreds of thousands of jobs at a time when unemployment rates are high and gas prices are rising.
In fact, the HSR project is estimated to create nearly 160,000 construction-related jobs and 450,000 permanent jobs in related industries like tourism.
“It’s a New Deal-type project at a time when many people are out of work and there isn’t a lot of new growth in California,” Loney said. “We can’t afford to keep the infrastructure as it is today.“
With approximately 300 airline flights a day between Northern and Southern California, the 800-mile HSR system is the necessary first step toward a transportation infrastructure that is foreign oil independent and has less carbon emissions, he added.
California HSR would reduce traffic, create over half a million new jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but is it worth the financial risk?
AARON BRUNER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org