High-speed rail gets stimulus boost

Though far below the requested $4.7 billion, the state’s high-speed rail project will receive $2.25 billion in federal stimulus funds to move ahead with construction.  While the project is projected to be a boon for job creation and infrastructure development, key questions remain.

According to the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the stimulus injection will generate 160,000 construction-related jobs, as well as 450,000 permanent jobs upon completion.  Ultimately, the high-speed rail project is projected to traverse 800 miles, connecting southern California to the Bay Area and Sacramento, and cost approximately $45 billion.  Officials seek to commence construction by late 2012 and complete the project some time after 2017.

While proponents are hailing the stimulus boost as a necessary investment in the nation’s ailing infrastructure, a catalyst for enduring job creation, and a tool for greater economic development, detractors are raising some thought-provoking questions.

For example, how much will California taxpayers have to eventually pay for this monolithic project, especially considering the state’s crippling debt predicament?  In late 2008, Californians approved nearly $10 billion in general obligation bonds, but a project of this magnitude will require tens of billions more. 

How accurate are these job predictions?  Remember Governor Schwarzenegger’s overly optimistic jobs predictions early in his gubernatorial career?  They never materialized.  In addition, the Obama administration’s stimulus predictions of no greater than 8% unemployment have been falsified as well.

How long will the project take to actually complete?  Rail authority officials estimate, that by September 2017, the portion running from San Francisco to Anaheim will have been completed, but the utlimate objective is to extend the high-speed rail from San Diego all the way up to Sacramento.  How many more years will that require?

And at the federal level, will DC continue to subsidize the states’ rail projects, despite running $1.4 trillion deficits and spending $708 billion on record military budgets?  After all, CA’s high-speed rail project is projected to take at least 10 more years to complete.

These are just some of the critical questions being raised by those questioning the viability of the project. 

Finally, the latest investment in high-speed rail needs to be put in proper perspective.  Last month, China unveiled the world’s fastest train and has initiated construction on at least forty two more high-speed rail lines, expected to be complete by 2012.  These rail lines will link underdeveloped regions with urban centers where industry and service are most prevalent.  While the US is trumpeting its $8 billion investment in high-speed rail in several states, China is investing far more money and is on schedule to complete these massive infrastructure projects at a much faster pace. 

If California and the United States as a whole wish to remain competitive with the likes of China, perhaps they should raise their expectations and take a long, hard look at their budget priorities.