The California High-Speed Rail Authority says it will release its latest cost estimates today, which most expect will be much higher than previous estimates. “It’s going to be bumpy,” the rail authority’s new CEO, Brian Kelly, promises reassuringly.
Meanwhile, up north, the state of Washington is planning its own high-speed money pit, including a leg from Seattle to Spokane. A lobby group has already formed to agitate for such a project, based on the slogan “You deserve slower.” Oops, the slogan they are using is “you deserve faster,” but since the fastest high-speed trains are slower than flying, they will actually be slower. The Antiplanner wonders how many contractors and unions are a part of this coalition.
An initial study projected that the Seattle-Spokane route would cost $25 billion to $50 billion. The study predicts that fares will cover operating costs by 2055, but it fails to account for driverless cars, increased airline efficiencies, and other technical changes. The truth is that it would probably cost less to just give everyone a free airline ticket.
Instead of blowing $50 billion right away, the Washington plan tentatively calls for starting with moderate-speed trains, with a full-blown high-speed rail project coming later. Supposedly, by using the old Northern Pacific route across the Cascades, which is intact but barely used by owner BNSF, they will be able to put in a 90-mile-per-hour train.
Anyone who believes that has been smoking too much of Washington’s now-legal marijuana. In case no one noticed, there’s a giant mountain range between Seattle and Spokane, and due to grades and curvature, the fastest times recorded for passenger trains before Amtrak were less than 50 miles per hour. The only way to get a true high-speed train train would be to build an 80-mile-long tunnel, but short of that, spending billions on the existing route will not get speeds up to 90 miles per hour.
Some may have forgotten that Washington has already spent $700 million on the Seattle-Portland route and was only able to increase average speeds by 2.7 miles per hour. Of course, the inaugural run of that route turned tragic when the train entered a 30-mile-per-hour curve at 80 miles per hour.
The airlines already offer more than 20 flights a day between Seattle and Spokane. Those flights would be more convenient to locals if Seattle opened Boeing Field, which is near the edge of downtown, to commercial flights going less than 500 miles. Even if it didn’t, the city has spent a couple of billion dollars building light rail to SeaTac Airport, so no one can complain that they would be stuck in traffic flying instead of taking a train.
California’s San Francisco-Los Angeles corridor is the second most important corridor in the country, and high-speed rail has turned into an incredible snafu there. By comparison, Seattle-Spokane or even Seattle-Portland are relatively unpopulated and certainly not suited for an infrastructure-heavy transportation project when we have infrastructure-light airplanes doing a better job today.