Ignore The Haters. California HSR Is Making Progress.
January 10, 2024
By Jim Mathews / President & CEO
A wonderfully positive take on the California High-Speed Rail program is making the rounds in official Washington this week from the nonprofit news site CalMatters, and it’s definitely worth your time to take a look.
“If you listen to California’s political class, the high-speed rail project sounds like a textbook boondoggle – over-budget, delayed and larded up with waste,” author Yousef Baig writes. “Yet in communities across California’s farm belt, the discourse is refreshingly different.”
It sure is. And it makes a point we’ve made often in our support for this project, especially after last month’s $3 billion Federal grant award to help the California High-Speed Rail Authority buy trainsets for the new system. This is about economic transformation for places that have been left behind for way too long.
But as long as we’re talking dollars, let me quote my own favorite paragraph from CalMatters’ lengthy review of this project: “America’s spreadsheets reveal her priorities. Between 1949 and 2017, the federal government invested $777 billion in aviation and over $2 trillion in highways. High-speed rail received just $10 billion.”
Indeed. When we as a Nation care about something and spend accordingly we succeed, grandly. Putting Neil Armstrong’s boot on the Moon, digging the Panama Canal, building the Golden Gate Bridge, all were big things that cost money. And, importantly, they represent the ways that government spending creates the pre-conditions for the success of private capital. Airline profits are built on the government-funded air traffic control infrastructure. Billions of dollars of shipping transit the Canal. Think of all the industries that have benefited and continue to benefit from these projects!
The folks in California’s Central Valley know this, seemingly better than some of the detractors in both parties they’ve elected to represent them. “Get rid of the negativity because we’ve had negativity in this area for over 50 years already. There’s no room for that anymore,” says June Stanfield, who owns the Golden Cuts barber shop and salon in southwest Fresno.
Delays cost money and can make the price tag seem utterly unaffordable. And this project has suffered more delays than most, thanks in part to NIMBY-ism and naysayers, and that has driven the costs well beyond what they could have been. But while the country keeps waiting for a true high-speed rail project to come along, here’s what’s actually happening in California. The Merced to Bakersfield segment – 119 miles – will be finished two years from now, in 2026. Trains will be running in tests two years later. Real high-speed trains.
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. California high-speed rail 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 let’s not pretend that high-speed rail is the only thing that got more expensive as inflation grew around the entire world. 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.
And that brings up another important point, the cost of doing nothing. Because doing nothing here absolutely carries a cost. Without high-speed rail, California would have to build nearly 4,200 highway lane-miles, 91 new airport gates and two more airport runways. Guess how much that costs? Nearly twice as much as what’s on the table today for rail...1.9 times more, to be exact.
The kicker? If you chose to spend $87 billion more on highways and airports instead of rail, you wouldn’t actually produce any more value. Highways and runways would do little to address road congestion. They would do nothing about lost time. They would do nothing about highway safety. They would do nothing about greenhouse gas emissions. Roads and runways wouldn’t do anything to make things better on California’s existing rail corridors, where trains today are already running at 125 percent capacity during peak hours.
You’d also lose out on the opportunity to attract many billions of dollars in private capital investment in things like retail, restaurants, and housing around the new high-speed rail stations.
So, to those who support killing off high-speed rail to spend twice as much on highways and runways with less return on investment, your slogan is “spend more, get less”? That’s truly 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.
The drumbeat from some of California’s political elite and many of the press outlets in the state has been relentlessly one-sided. Congressman Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) penned an excellent response last year to a snarky San Jose Mercury News op-ed, and you should read it (go here). But before you do, go visit CalMatters to read their careful, well-reported, and thoughtful feature on what’s just around the corner for the Central Valley and beyond.
"The National Association of Railroad Passengers has done yeoman work over the years and in fact if it weren’t for NARP, I'd be surprised if Amtrak were still in possession of as a large a network as they have. So they've done good work, they're very good on the factual case."
Robert Gallamore, Director of Transportation Center at Northwestern University and former Federal Railroad Administration official, Director of Transportation Center at Northwestern University
November 17, 2005, on The Leonard Lopate Show (with guest host Chris Bannon), WNYC New York.