Happening Now

California Should Not Settle For Less

March 17, 2023

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO, Rail Passengers Association

Last month, the San Jose Mercury News told its readers that California – on track this year to become the world’s fourth-largest economy, bigger than Germany – just can’t build big things, and that the state should give up on high-speed rail. You won’t be surprised to learn that, in my view, that would be a huge mistake.

The paper’s call in a Feb. 23 editorial came even as the visionary California High-Speed Rail effort is poised to transform that state as dramatically as high-speed rail has already transformed the other economies which California has already leapfrogged, economies like Germany, France, and Spain.

To be sure, the newest cost estimates make stopping look appealing, at least on the surface. But once you take into account the overall economy, the prospects for future growth, the need to cope with continued strains on the state’s transportation network, and the cost of doing nothing, stopping now just wastes money and imposes an even heavier cost burden years from now. This project will build America’s first 21st century high-speed rail system – up to 800 miles of brand-new rail with as many as 24 stations eventually taking shape between San Diego and Sacramento. Of course, it’s hard. But it’s also vital to California’s future.

That’s because as surely as mobility fuels an economic engine, congestion constrains it. And investing in high-speed rail is one of the most cost-effective ways to ensure long-term growth by definitively easing congestion, not just for the intercity market but for transit and commuter services as well. CAHSR is not an isolated idea, but a core part of a statewide rail modernization program, helping to secure local, regional, and state investment for existing transit rail systems while also taking half a million cars off crowded highways, reducing pollution, and spurring new development and economic opportunity in the Central Valley and beyond.

Yes, it’s true that the lingering worldwide inflation inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic has made everything more expensive, including the cost to deliver high-speed rail. But those increases are certainly not limited to high-speed rail, as any ordinary grocery shopper can attest. The costs to build anything have gone up, including the highways and airport capacity that would be required if California were to pull the plug on its high-speed rail project. But most credible engineering estimates suggest that building the alternative – nearly 4,200 highway lane-miles, 91 airport gates and two more airport runways – could cost 1.9 times as much as what’s on the table today for rail.

And choosing to spend $87 billion more on highways and airports instead of rail doesn’t actually produce more value. Building highways and runways does nothing to address road congestion, nothing about lost time, nothing about highway safety (driving is, on average about 17 times more hazardous than taking a train or flying) and nothing about greenhouse gas emissions. More roads and runways will also do nothing to address the congestion choking California’s existing rail corridors, with many trains are currently operating at 125 percent capacity during peak hours. And it will do little to attract new private capital investment in things like retail, restaurants, and housing around stations. “Spend more, get less” is really unsound public policy.

Once this project is finished, some 31 million passengers are likely to ride these trains every year. That’s two and a half times the number riding Amtrak’s famous “Acela corridor” between Boston and Washington in the northeast. Let’s get real: getting from Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than three hours, plus building that capacity for roughly half the cost of other options which won’t offer the same advantage, is a solid return on taxpayers’ equity. Economic-benefits modeling suggests that passenger rail, once in operation, returns at least four times its annual operating investment to the economies of the communities served.

It's also unfair to claim that there’s no progress in this program. By the end of this year, environmental reviews will be finished on over 460 of the 500 miles of brand-new greenfield right-of-way between downtown San Francisco and downtown Los Angeles. The southernmost construction section in the initial Merced to Bakersfield segment will be finished by this summer. And the designs will be finished for the first Central Valley stations. In just five years’ time, tracks, systems, and stations should be finished on the first 119-mile segment.

There’s a roadmap for where California stands today. The effort to bring a rail transit system to the Seattle metro region had a lot of similarities to California High-Speed Rail. In the late 1990s a sweeping, big idea plan was floundering. Through an initial rescoping, the project began service in a smaller area and has since grown beyond its initial scope to be a gigantic success.

Congressman Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) penned an excellent response to the Mercury News, and you should read it (go here).

Let’s finish the high-speed spine for the Central Valley, improve the conventional rail systems in the north and south, and when things are up and running and California has given voters a taste of a modern, efficient rail service, future leaders can use that foundation to finally bring high-speed train service to the rest of the state. The fourth-largest economy in the world can do better than settling for less.