The head of California’s High-Speed Rail Authority, Brian Kelly, says that the train will take longer to build and be more expensive than anyone ever thought. He almost says it like those are good things. The authority plans to publish its latest cost and construction estimates next week.
The authority recently admitted that the first section of the project, which was supposed to cost $6 billion, is now expected to cost $10.6 billion. That’s the cheapest segment of the line because it is flat Central Valley of the state. Getting from there over the mountains to Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area will require expensive tunneling at both ends, including a 13.5-mile tunnel that is expected to cost anywhere from $5.6 billion to $14.4 billion.
The total cost of a truly high-speed line all the way from L.A. to San Francisco is almost certainly going to be more than $100 billion, and it won’t be complete until sometime in the 2030s at the earliest. A representative of the airline industry pointed out that, for just $2 billion and eighteen months, the state could start a high-capacity airline service between the two cities — and sell the planes if it doesn’t work out. Though rail proponents say that downtown-to-downtown train times will be comparable to flying, the Los Angeles area has five airports and Bay Area has four, so far more people live near one of those airports than to downtowns.
All this is irrelevant, however, in the eyes of one of California’s leading rail nuts, Rod Diridon, Sr. He’s the one who thinks that “mass transit is the only answer to gridlock” when in fact mass transit has failed in Silicon Valley, where he headed the region’s transit agency, and in general it is the cities that are spending the most on transit that are closest to gridlock.
In Diridon’s latest opinion piece, he argues that high-speed rail’s objective is “to efficiently bring employees to work and clear roads to move products to market.” In Diridon’s fantasy world, people who work in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley are going to live in the “affordable” Central Valley and commute to work by high-speed train.
Why will people need to live so far away when there are hundreds of thousands of acres in Los Angeles and the Bay Area suitable for development? The answer is that counties have forbidden development on those acres because they are supposedly such valuable farm land. In fact, most of that land is rolling hills that is currently used only as cattle range. Wouldn’t it be better to develop those lands and save both the cost of the high-speed trains and the highly productive Central Valley farm lands?
“Only a small fraction of those daily Central Valley trips need to ride the train for profitable operation,” claims Diridon. Of course! That must be why the Altamont Commuter Express, which takes commuters from homes in Stockton in the Central Valley to jobs in San Jose, is so profitable. In 2017 it collected $26.6 million in fares against $8.6 in operations and maintenance costs. Whoops! Got that backwards. It collected $8.6 million in fares but spent $26.6 million on operations and maintenance.
But, Diridon argues, high-speed trains are special: because they are so fast, they are more likely to be profitable, “as is the case with most of the world’s high-speed rail systems.” Except that most of the world’s high-speed rail systems are far from profitable; only a handful cover their operating costs and only one or two have covered their capital costs.
The ones closest to covering their costs captured most of their customers from low-speed trains, not from cars or planes. But California doesn’t have enough low-speed train passengers to even fill the trains, much less make them profitable. On average, less than a third of the seats in California state-supported Amtrak trains were filled in 2017. (The Altamont Commuter Express filled 42 percent of its seats.)
Of course, people like Diridon never admit that their dreams are unrealistic, even after they have are proven failures. Diridon is the primary promoter of San Jose’s light rail, yet per capita transit ridership in Silicon Valley has declined by more than a third since 2000.
Sadly, if Trump’s infrastructure plan is approved, California would probably blow most of its share of the funds on its high-speed money pit. The state’s only hope is that the next governor is brave enough to shut the project down even after it has spent several billion on pointless construction.