The costs are exorbitant and rising. The risks are staggering. And the benefits? Even if you believe the Authority’s optimistic assumptions, you pretty much need a magnifying glass to see them.
What are the benefits claimed for the rail network? Less traffic congestion, less energy consumption, less air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, economic development, and, of course, saving people’s time.
Congestion: With or without rail, the EIS predicts that highway congestion will be far worse in 2020 than it is today. With rail, highways parallel to the rail lines will have an average of 3.8 percent less traffic than if rail is not built (p. 3.1-12). Rail will do most on the L.A. to San Diego route (which will probably be one of the last segments to be built), taking 7.9 percent of cars off the road. It will remove 6.6 percent of cars on the Bay Area-to-Central Valley portion. Elsewhere the relief will be less than 3.5 percent.
The EIS adds that 45 highway segments parallel to the rail route will be at “level of service F” (stop-and-go traffic) in 2020 if the line is not built. Building the line will upgrade just four of those segments to level of service E (page 3.2-7).
Between 1996 and 2006, travel on California’s rural freeways grew by 2.7 percent per year. At that rate, the congestion relief provided by high-speed rail will be absorbed by new traffic growth in an average of 17 months — 34 months in the L.A.-San Diego corridor.
Many supporters of high-speed rail portray the question as: “Either we build high-speed rail or we build more highways.” In reality, the congestion relief provided by high-speed rail will be so slight that the real question is: “Should California build more highways or should it build high-speed rail and more highways one-and-a-half years later?”
Energy: With fresh memories of $4 a gallon gas, the appeal of high-speed rail as a way to save energy is strong. One problem is the energy cost of building high-speed rail will be enormous. The EIS estimates that construction of the high-speed rail lines will consume more than 150 trillion BTUs of energy — equal to more than 1.3 billion gallons of gasoline. The EIS also optimistically projects that the energy saved in operations will pay back this cost in just five years, but this is highly questionable.
First, the Authority based this estimate on its “high” ridership projection — which is nearly six times greater than Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor ridership. Using its “low” projection — still more than three times greater than the Northeast Corridor — increases rail’s energy consumption per passenger mile by 82 percent, with a similar increase in the payback period.
Second, the Authority made several other questionable assumptions regarding energy. In fact, page 7 of the energy technical report appendix says they used the average energy usage for all driving even though most of the miles of driving that will compete against high-speed rail is on the highway. EPA fuel economy ratings indicate that highway miles use at least 15 percent less fuel than the combined city/highway ratings. The EIS also used the average energy requirement per vehicle mile for all commercial aircraft, when in fact most of the planes used for short-haul service are smaller and use less energy than the average commercial airplane.
But the most unrealistic assumption is that auto and aircraft energy efficiencies would not increase over time. In reality, under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, cars on the road in 2020 will be 21 percent more energy efficient than they are today, and by 2030 they will be 33 percent more fuel-efficient. If fuel prices remain high, these projections may end up being conservative.
Meanwhile, the energy efficiency of commercial air travel has been growing even faster, by an average of about 2 percent per year. Boeing promises that its next major plane will be 20 percent more fuel efficient than comparable planes today, and other new planes will be similarly improved.
Correcting the Authority’s unrealistic assumptions, and using the “low” ridership projections (which are still more than 3 times the riders in the Northeast Corridor) extends the energy payback period to at least 60 years. Since the entire rail system must be rebuilt, at a fairly high energy cost, every 30 years, high-speed rail won’t save much energy at all.
Pollution: Unlike energy, the EIS does account for future improvements in air pollution technology (though not for the effect of more energy-efficient vehicles on pollution). The EIS notes, for example, that in 1997 cars, planes, trains, and electric utilities emitted more than 9,700 metric tons of carbon monoxide in California. By 2020, without the high-speed train, the EIS projects this will fall by 68 percent to 3,101 tons — even with projected growth in population and travel. Similarly large declines are projected for other toxic pollutants (see table 3.3-13).
If high-speed rail achieves the high ridership expectations, says the EIS, carbon monoxide will fall to 3,074 tons — just 0.9 percent less than without rail. Reductions for other toxics, such as particulates and nitrogen oxides, range from 0.7 percent to 1.5 percent. At the low ridership projections, the gains are just 0.3 to 0.6 percent. This means relatively low-cost improvements in conventional travel modes will reduce pollution by 60 to 70 percent, while the $50 billion high-speed rail line will reduce it by another half to one percent or so — if you believe the EIS’s optimistic ridership assumptions.
Greenhouse gases: Table 3.3-13 of the EIS projects that high ridership of the high-speed rail will reduce transportation-related greenhouse gases by 1.4 percent, or about 7.5 million tons per year. Low ridership saves just 2.3 million tons or 0.5 percent.
But as previously noted, the EIS fails to account for improvements in auto and aircraft energy efficiencies (which translate directly into reductions in greenhouse gases). For example, by buying plug-in hybrids and relying on electric charges for just 1.5 percent of their driving, Californians could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than high-speed rail.
Just as important, the EIS fails to estimate the greenhouse gases emitted during construction. As noted above, the EIS does estimate that construction will consume 150 trillion BTUs of energy. If all of this energy comes from burning fossil fuels — and most of it will — that is equal to roughly 12 million tons of greenhouse gases. Even more greenhouse gases will be emitted from laying all of the millions of cubic yards of concrete needed for ties, elevated structures, noise barriers, and other parts of the system. When made with cement, one cubic yard of concrete emits about a third of a ton of carbon dioxide. Altogether, it is likely that the payback period for greenhouse gases will be at least as long as for energy.
Economic development: The Authority promises that high-speed rail will stimulate all sorts of economic development near its stations. But even to the extent that this is so, such development is largely a zero-sum game. A development that take place next to a rail station would, in the absence of high-speed rail, have been build anyway, just possibly in a different location. High-speed rail is not going to increase total income or sales tax revenues to the state of California.
Time savings: The Authority’s big selling point is that high-speed rail is faster than driving and even faster than flying when measured from downtown to downtown. Door-to-door, downtown-to-downtown travel times from San Francisco to L.A. are estimated to be 3-1/2 hours by rail, 3:32 by air; L.A. to Fresno is 2:33 by rail, 3:02 by air; L.A.-San Jose 3:02 vs. 3:14; and L.A.-San Diego 2:16 vs. 3:00 (senate report page 22). In other words, savings are significant only for shorter trips.
Even that savings assumes both that airport security delays will not be fixed and that every traveler wants to go downtown to downtown. In fact, Los Angeles probably has more jobs near its airport than in downtown. The Bay Area also has plenty of jobs around its three major airports. People who live or work closer to one of the airports than to downtowns are not likely to enjoy any savings from rail.
Certainly some people will save time. The EIS optimistically predicts that high-speed rail will carry 15 to 22 percent of all trips in the corridor (page 3.2-26). But the EIS doesn’t estimate the total time savings, so we can’t calculate the cost per hour saved — a standard measure in traffic analysis. What we can say is that the few people who will save time will be vastly outnumbered by the people whose taxes will subsidize them.
Is it worth $50 billion or so to save an elite group of downtown white collar workers a few minutes on their travels? What if that $50 billion also reduces air pollution by about a percent, greenhouse gases by 1.4 percent, and traffic congestion by 3.8 percent? Not only is it unlikely that these trivial benefits are worth the cost, it is far more likely that the same benefits could be attained at a far lower cost through other alternatives.