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High Speed Rail Zombie Lurches On

by Bob Morris, published


Proposed plans for High Speed Rail (HSR) in California are now hugely over budget by most estimates at almost $100 billion. Construction has yet to start.  A 2008 bond measure authorized $9.5 billion be spent for HSR but that’s not nearly enough to pay for it. The federal government was expected to pick up much of the tab but recent votes in Congress have killed potential funding. You'd think that would be enough to kill the zombie, but no.

The California High Speed Rail Authority in their fourth and perhaps final attempt to save the HSR project announced on Monday a new lower cost of $68.4 billion. Somehow, $30 billion in expenses have disappeared. Many are skeptical of the lower estimate, they have doubts the new plan fulfills its legal mandates and lingering questions about its financing. For example, financing in the new plan relies on income from cap-and-trade, a plan which which hasn't even started yet, with no one really sure what kind of income it will generate. In other words, the HSR plan assumes income from a source that doesn't yet exist.

You might think this would slow down plans for HSR but no, the California High Speed Rail Authority and Gov. Jerry Brown are in agreement that HSR must go forward. The high speed rail zombie shambles on, unaware that it is dead. There are a few teensy snags with their plan. First and foremost, it may not be legal. Mandates for HSR say any leg must be fully funded before construction starts. Passengers must be able to begin any either terminus and arrive at the other without changing trains. Upwards of 12 trains must run per hour and the system must run without using taxpayer subsidies.

Unfortunately for HSR boosters, their plan appears to violate all these mandates. Should the governor ram the plan through the legislature, there will certainly be court challenges. Gov. Jerry Brown is untroubled by such trivialities saying “We are aware of the issue. People want to micromanage everything.” Excuse me Mr. Governor, but a judge ruling on contracts and agreements is not micromanaging. It’s what a judge is supposed to do. It’s called rule of law.

HSR has serious financial, logistical, and environmental challenges. Residents in areas where it would run tend to be opposed to loud trains zipping through at 200 mph. There are serious environmental concerns about Central Valley agriculture as well as concerns as to how HSR could be built in densely packed urban corridors like the San Francisco Peninsula. For the train to travel at 200 mph in such areas, it must be underground or raised. This is very expensive. If the HSR lines are built on the ground then the train cannot go 200 mph because it will have to stop at street crossings. Thus, trips from Los Angeles to San Francisco will take much longer than originally planned.

Even with the new lower cost of $68.4 billion, there is no way California can find the money to fund construction of HSR. It will almost surely lose money if constructed. A high speed train for California may be a good idea in theory but the current plans are unworkable. We need to stop the HSR zombie.

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