Pethokoukis, Economics, U.S. Economy

Obama’s bullet train dream just derailed in California

Image Credit: Grist

Image Credit: Grist

Not a good month for the progressive policy agenda. In addition to Obamacare’s failed rollout, bad news from California about its high-speed rail plan. The San Jose Mercury News:

In rulings that threaten the future of California’s bullet train, a Sacramento judge on Monday ordered the state to draft a new budget for the multibillion dollar project and prove there’s enough money to finish the job before it is started.

Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny found the state’s High-Speed Rail Authority failed to follow voter-approved requirements designed to prevent reckless spending on the $68 billion project. Those safeguards are a key piece of the ballot measure voters approved in 2008 allowing the state to sell $10 billion in rail bonds to help build the nation’s first high-speed rail line, from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

And from Reuters:

Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, an opponent of the project, said Kenny’s decisions mark a major setback for the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

“It’s a victory for common sense,” Coupal told Reuters. “I’m not sure how they salvage this.”

Critics of California’s high-speed rail effort say money will run dry before its network can be completed and that it is uncertain federal and private funds will be available for it over the long haul.

A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll in September found seven out of 10 California voters want another vote on whether the high-speed rail project should continue and 52 percent say it should be stopped, compared with 43 percent who want it to move forward.

I don’t think that graphic at the top of this post is happening. The economics have always been dodgy, and the whole idea is likely to be technologically overtaken by autonomous vehicles. As The Washington Post put it recently: “High-speed rail was once a central part of Obama’s vision for government — one in which the nation’s infrastructure, schools and health-care systems would be modernized to meet the challenges of globalization and expand the middle class.” But bullet trains are retro tech splashed with liberal nostalgia for the 1950s and 1960s.

Transportation expert David Levinson, who blogs at Transportationist, had a great analysis of California’s plan a few years ago when it was only expected to cost half as much. A few excerpts:

1. The proposed California High Speed Rail line would be more expensive than every other active HSR proposal in the country put together. While subsidized by everyone who pays the regressive sales tax, its users would have a higher than average income, so it is a subsidy from the poor to the rich. It would cost about $600-$1000 person or $2000-$3000 per California household before a single trip is made. This money could support about 20,000 teachers or police perpetually. For every $1 spent by the passenger, it would entail $4 in public subsidy, twice the annual expenditure of the State Transportation Improvement Program/

2. HSR is slower than air travel in the main Bay Area to Los Angeles market. While proponents claim fewer delays at train stations than airports, that assumes lessened security precautions. Rail systems are at least as vulnerable to terrorism as air systems.

3. The HSR system will take less than one lane of traffic off the major North-South highways. Airports will soon have extra capacity as they increase operations in bad weather with instrumented flight controls.

4. Other modes are steadily getting cleaner, for instance fuel cell powered vehicles will emit only water and carbon dioxide. Any benefits from HSR depend on unproven forecasts. The energy for HSR must come from somewhere, if electric than probably coal or nuclear, both of which have some problems.

5.  What is the best use of $20,000,000,000 to $30,000,000,000 ? For that amount of money it would be very easy to provide improvements to air travel into the central valley, along with many other things. HSR is the least cost effective way to provide transportation services between the Valley and the coastal cities.

Follow James Pethokoukis on Twitter at @JimPethokoukis, and AEIdeas at @AEIdeas.

12 thoughts on “Obama’s bullet train dream just derailed in California

  1. And for the same reason as Obamacare. It was approved by voters and legislators based on deceit — in this case lies about the actual costs and sources of funds.

  2. High speed rail and light rail are make-work projects for union-controlled construction companies- in other words, the Democrat Party’s fund-raising arm.

    These projects are in effect, kickbacks.

    “Elect me, and I’ll funnel billions of dollars to you so you can build a toy train no one wants to ride.”

  3. What would be the best use of $20B to $30B? Why don’t we we multiply it by 100 and let banks park it at the Fed to earn interest? That should be good for three, four jobs.

    Five words you wish you’d hear from a R: I have a better idea…. One word you hear instead: No.

    • They could finish the 710 to Pasadena, they could finish Foothill South. With the remaining 90% of the money, everyone could get free cake and ice cream. Of course, it’s all borrowed money anyway, so maybe better to not borrow.

  4. The “better” idea is not heavy “rail” that require heavy tractors (engines) and thereby necessitate a lengthy “runway” to attain speeds necessary to activate maglev but smaller mini bus (20-40 passenger) “capsules” that operate in partial vacuum tubes buried along routes (for enhanced protection from terrorists and the elements). Leviatated on maglev in reduced friction environment and powered by compressed air they would depart in short intervals more like plane traffic allowing greater user flex rather than the 500-600 passenger requirement that HSR would need. Low emission power source accumulated using “green solar” and stored as compressed air as byproduct of maintaining partial vacuum.


  5. It’s just the matter of removing the “vision” of rails and seeing it as bullets firing off using smaller commuter jet sized capsules every 10-15 minutes as prior departures clear the appetures that maintain the low vacuum zones and return to low vac status. Smaller unit capacity allows frequent departures, removal for maint. & repair; reallocation to high demand routes during peak demand; spreads use over time maximizing user convenience and system ability to handle intermediate and long routes. Speed attained nears airflight speeds without navigation and other craft avoidance/ATC needs while providing perfect compliment to solar energy tech and conversion into compressed air storage allows “vertical” in line solution to problem of “energy banking”that solar and other green production face.

    And it’s not “new” but the pneumatic “train” actually worked and was constructed in NYC (if memory serves.. Google it) failing SOLELY because 19th Century mechanical systems not efficient or reliable enough. e.g. leather baffles and seals. But it still worked just like the tube you use at the bank for drive thru…


  6. We should be doing everything we can to encourage freight rail, not passenger rail. It’s a much more efficient way of using rails.

  7. “Authority failed to follow voter-approved requirements designed to prevent reckless spending on the $68 billion project”…

    Ha! Ha! That’ll happen the same day Jerry Brown grows a brain

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