California's High-Speed Rail Project Under Way

High Speed Rail

Artist's conception of high speed rail terminal/image
courtesy California High-Speed Rail Authority

California’s High-Speed Rail Project Under Way
| published January 14, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Jerry Brown was recently sworn-in again as California Governor, meaning he has now served longer than any other chief executive in the history of the Golden State. He was re-elected in large part because of his skill at balancing a budget once more out-of-whack than any U.S. state had ever been—serious budget and spending problems which pre-dated the Great Recession, and can be traced to the fiscal missteps of several previous governors, both Republicans and Democrats.

Despite this positive political capital—or perhaps because of it—Brown used a shovel to break ground a few days ago on what will become the most expensive public works project ever attempted in the United States: a massive high speed rail line which will one day connect San Francisco to San Diego, enabling tourists and business travelers to get from one end of the state to the other in a little over three hours and thirty minutes.

Proponents of the new rail system now being built say that at three hours and change, it will be quicker even than flying, which is subject to airport traffic, parking headaches, long lines, security delays, baggage problems and more. And forget driving by car, which, even on a good day and in modest traffic would take between seven and eight hours to travel the 528 miles from San Francisco to San Diego.

The high-speed rail project, which is now 13 years past its original starting date, may ultimately cost more than $98 billion, according to several research groups and public works analysts. For now—thanks to a narrow victory at the ballot box back in 2008—voters have approved $10 billion to get the project started, not nearly enough, some say, to complete the rail line and all its technological trappings, but sufficient to complete the first legs of the route, as well as to prove to the cynics that the project has merit.

The project will be completed, if all goes well, in 2033.

California is one of several states beginning construction of high speed rail projects. A similar project, using hybrid designs and recently-acquired right-of-ways, is under construction in Florida, the first segments of which are already being built in Boca Raton and Miami. Like California, the Florida project has had a long incubation since voters approved the rail service more than a decade earlier. In Florida, the high-speed rail has faced a barrage of controversy, from environmentalists, from the neighborhood associations and towns the rail line will pass through, and from both Democrats and Republicans in Tallahassee who fear the project will become a sinkhole for Sunshine State cash. Political resistance has come in the form of Democrats who want that money instead for social services and education, and from Republicans, many of whom say the money would be better spent on existing public works projects and road improvements.

The Florida project has also had a few powerful opponents in the form of business interests, concerned that the rail might actually do what it purports to do—divert thousands of drivers off the highway and onto the train, thus bypassing shopping centers, outlets malls, gift shops, hotels and motels, and a thousand restaurants and gasoline stations along the busy I-95 corridor from Cocoa Beach to downtown Miami. In order to make the high-speed aspect of the line viable, the Florida rail line will have only a limited number of stops, and that means that some tourism-based communities will suffer if those visitors to Florida don’t even have the option to stop. Then there are the political complaints, including one which says that Florida Governor Rick Scott only agreed to support the project after it was recrafted to dovetail neatly into a major renovation and rebuild of the Orlando airport, a project he supports. The airport upgrade now includes the footprint for what will be the Orlando terminal for the rail system.

Meanwhile, in the Lone Star State, high speed rail may become a reality sooner than in Florida. A mostly privately-funded project, managed by a for-profit company, will get under way in Texas very soon—a high speed rail line which will eventually connect downtown Dallas with Houston. The Texas project is projected to be less expensive than its counterparts in Florida and California because of the relative ease of construction across the generally flat, firm prairies which lie between the two cities. If all goes according to plan, the Texas high speed rail line, 240 miles in length, will be completed first, possibly in 2021. Its groundbreaking may occur later this year.

The Texas project has its share of skeptics, and plenty of those naysayers point to what appears to be a looming energy recession, with the possibility of thousands of layoffs and heavy downsizing by oil companies in both Houston and Dallas. What’s the point, they ask, of building an elaborate, overpriced mass transit system which—once completed—will ferry empty train cars at blazing speeds between the two cities with slumping economies and lots of unemployed.

But the California high speed rail project is officially under way, but not without its own share of controversy and continuing legal battles.

One of the biggest challenges faced by the California High-Speed Rail Authority was the ongoing lawsuit it faced from the city of Bakersfield. Bakersfield’s attorneys maintain that the High-Speed Rail Authority cut corners and fudged the facts in its environmental-impact studies of the proposed route—in particular the segment which would connect Fresno to Downtown Bakersfield. Among other problems, the Rail Authority wanted a large passenger station located near the existing Amtrak station, but in the end both sides settled on another possible location a little over a mile away.

Even though the Bakersfield courtroom snarl was finally untangled in December, a dozen other legal challenges lay in the path of the proposed rail line. Some of this litigation comes from homeowners and residential groups, some from landowners, a few from developers. But the rail system also faces challenges from churches, and even from a hospital. The complaints range from concerns about noise pollution and noise abatement, to concerns over safety and disaster preparedness, to fears of environmental blowback, and even to vehicular traffic flow where the rail will intersect existing roads.

Proponents of the high-speed rail say that the vast majority of the objections are based on irrational fears and misconceptions: generally speaking, high-speed trains produce less noise than conventional rail lines; passenger trains certainly pose less environmental risk and even less risk in terms of hazardous materials. Put bluntly, would you rather live near the site of a potential passenger train derailment, or would you prefer the full-on effect of the derailment of a train carrying oil, coal, sludge, fertilizer, diesel fuel, ammonia, and cleaning products? (For fun and amusement, go to any major rail company’s website and look under “hazardous materials transported by rail”; there you can find the Federally managed lists of what is allowed—and not allowed—for transport by rail in the United States).

In total, however, the California High-Speed Rail Authority, according to the Fresno Bee, faces seven more lawsuits—not counting the recently resolved Bakersfield case. In all seven remaining legal challenges, the plaintiffs maintain that the Rail Authority failed to make a full and comprehensive evaluation of the effect that the new rail line would have on homes, apartments, businesses, schools and other facilities—not only from the completed and fully functioning rail system—but also from the construction of the rail-bed and the major elements adjacent to the line. The relatively heavy work required to compete a high-speed rail line in the often rugged terrain of California has some residents concerned, and it has lots of environmentalists worried. At least two environmental groups have listed 11 species which will be threatened by the construction of the rail.

But the problems for the California high-speed rail project go deeper than the environmental concerns—ecological issues which the Rail Authority, probably rightly, calculates can be offset by the win-win rewards of fully functioning mass transit. After all, the high speed rail line will take cars, SUVs and buses off roads and highways, reduce carbon emissions, alleviate traffic problems, and take pressure off of already overtasked airports. In that context, supporters of the rail system say that the environmental concerns are greatly outweighed by the long-term benefits of fewer vehicles on California roads.

The larger issue, for many skeptics, is the ever-evolving cost.

By some estimates, California taxpayers will spend $4 million per day—every day—for the next three years. Critics of the rail system say that such high rates of spending in a state which only recently staggered out of its long fiscal nightmare borders on the irresponsible.

“We’re talking about real money here,” Kris Vosburgh told Fox News, “This is money that’s not available for health care or education, for public safety, or put back into taxpayer’s pockets so they have something to spend.” Vosburgh is the executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, a watchdog group which monitors government spending.

Another concern: ridership. Original estimates of ridership exceeded 90 million per year on the completed rail line. But those figures were later adjusted down to about 30 million per year, a third of what was advertised when the ballot measure was first approved by voters. Now, newer studies have indicated that even the 30 million number may be too optimistic, and critics speculate openly that ridership will sag dramatically once the novelty and newness has worn off. Other skeptics feel that the ridership numbers touted in the early paperwork were greatly exaggerated from the start, and some opponents in the legislature question whether ridership will even exceed one million per year.

Still other critics raise questions about the “high-speed” part of the high-speed rail. The original idea was to whoosh passengers between San Diego and San Francisco at blurring speeds along a smooth, linear line. But multiple changes in the route, coupled with a variety of agreements to moderate speeds through some communities, have taken the original three-hour ride and added an extra hour and a half. If because of future political fights more route changes occur along that proposed line, one can add still more time to the full experience. According to information provided by the High Speed Rail Authority to the Associated Press, the train can attain speeds of 200 miles per hour, comparable to some high-speed rail lines in Europe, but somewhat slower than the even faster trains now operating in Asia. The original selling point for the rail was to be able to beat the best time of the fastest airline on a head-to-head match-race: Los Angeles to San Francisco, station-to-station, airport-to-airport. But compromises, route modifications, safety concessions, and a myriad of other design factors may alter the outcome of that long-distance horse race. A direct flight between the two cities takes approximately one hour and twenty minutes. Those who have studied the rail project question whether the train can beat the plane.

Supporters of the project say that construction and maintenance costs—like many of the safety and environmental concerns—are straw-man arguments. The construction of the rail line will be much cheaper over the long haul than the billions California taxpayers will shell out to repair roads and highways, replace overpasses and bridges, and supplement runways and airports to accommodate even modest projected growth. Proponents argue that the rail line will be far less expensive to maintain than all that combined infrastructure cost. Better still, the rail will take enormous pressure off of the crowded roads and gridlocked highways familiar to most Californians.

The $10 billion in bonds approved by voters was supplemented by an extra $3.3 billion from the federal government, but this will only cover the first legs of the entire project, as currently envisioned. And this is what has the fiscal hawks and the skeptics deeply concerned. Though the current projected budget is $68 billion, several independent studies, some backed by conservative groups and taxpayer watchdog associations, fear that the overall cost will be staggering—running upwards of $100 billion—and that the project will become a finger-trap for future legislators and governors for decades. Some legislators in Sacramento see it as a lose/lose: with the first leg complete, pressure will become immense to complete the next, then the next, and so forth. If legislators oppose further construction, they will be accused of disallowing any chance of eventual success; if they support continued spending, they will be pilloried for dumping billions into a failed experiment in mass transit.

Supporters are optimistic about the economic possibilities, pointing to what they reasonably hope will be a multiplier effect along the high-speed rail route: hotels, restaurants, shopping, parking garages, tourist attractions, even office space, and perhaps even business development and tech firm start-ups. In the view of rail proponents, such growth, whether organic or backed through incentives by cities and towns, would be a boost to the tax revenue of the state.

In the meantime, Governor Brown feels he has backed the right horse. With his state’s budget finally balanced after decades of red ink and recession, Brown may be able to leverage enough political support to get the rail project rolling in the right direction. And while these first tentative steps take place, much of the rest of the country watches to see whose high-speed rail endeavor reaches completion first: Florida, Texas, or California.

Related Thursday Review articles:

High Speed Rail: Hurry Up, And Wait; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; December 28, 2014.

Moscow to Beijing by Rail: In 30 Hours?; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; November 21, 2014.