Will high-speed rail in CA change our driving behavior? Part 2 of 2

Contained in the $787 billion stimulus package is $13 billion dollars designated for high-speed rail. The Register reports that Governor Schwarzenegger has applied for roughly 35 percent, $4.7 billion, of that nationwide pot which might be a tad ambitious. As I re-read my Oct 23, 2008 post on Prop 1A I see a reference to the CHSRA  banking on obtaining $15 billion in Federal Grants  and another $20 billion from the private sector.

What impact did that incorrect figure have on last year’s vote of approval will remain a mystery. Bear in mind today’s Register only addressed capital cost, not operating costs.

In his August 18th Reason Foundation report entitled “Why High-Speed Rail Fails as a Jobs Program,” Sam Staley, director of urban use and land use policy, includes some facts and figures that warrant further discussion.
Setting financials aside for now let’s look at his ridership and job creation remarks where he separates freight trains from passenger usage with the following statements that warrant inclusion in this post.


“Freight rail in America is a crucial part of our transportation infrastructure, accounting for 43 percent of the shipment of goods and services from one city to the other. Thus, investments in freight rail have a direct impact on the bottom line for American businesses, increasing the speed and reliability of goods shipment and improving productivity.

Passenger rail in the U.S. is a different story. Passenger rail currently carries a very small portion of city-to-city travel-the market targeted by high-speed rail-and it’s likely to remain modest well into the future. In 2008, Amtrak carried 28.7 million passengers. By comparison, there were 687 million airline passengers in 2008, in part because air service provides frequent high-speed travel to geographically distant cities. Then there’s our well-developed highway network that makes automobiles very competitive with rail for distances under 200 miles. In most cases, once travel and wait times to train stations are factored in, travelers will spend as much time in route on the train as they will in a car.

Consider a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, or Chicago to St. Louis, for a typical high-speed train traveler. You’ll likely have to drive to the train station and pay to park. Once arriving in downtown St. Louis or San Francisco, you will likely have to take a taxi or rent a car to get to your hotel or meeting place (which is likely to be outside the central business district). The reliable, diverse, and nimble transit system that many advocates envision surrounding high-speed rail stations simply doesn’t exist in most cities today, limiting the appeal of trains. To compensate for these disadvantages, taxpayers will have to steeply subsidize train ticket prices for the business travelers and tourists that are most likely to use them.

Ultimately, high-speed rail’s impacts on American travel patterns and employment productivity are going to be negligible, and the actual job creation potential for high speed rail is much more modest than proponents admit.”

Just a minute. Mr. Staley reports that Amtrak only carried 28.7 million passengers last year while the Parsons Brinckerhoff report estimates ridership of the proposed high speed CA rail at between 33 to 71 million passengers depending on the fare schedule. As stated in the Part 1 of 2 Juice report, using this same study, we made “more than half billion trips among California’s regions” in the year 2000. At this point peeling this back further requires some clarification between “passengers” and “annual” trips.

Before floating these Transportation Bonds let’s look at where the rubber meets the road. With 37 million people in our state how frequently will the same people ride the rails?

PhD. Staley adds: “Ultimately, high-speed rail’s impacts on American travel patterns and employment productivity are going to be negligible, and the actual job creation potential for high speed rail is much more modest than proponents admit.”

In reading today’s Register account of the project you will see that the focus is on questionable job creation and system cost yet not a word regarding projected ridership and ticket cost data.

Let me take us back one year to the Nov 2008 $9.95 billion Proposition 1A Transportation Ballot measure approved by 52 percent of our voters who must have been smoking some of Arnold’s cigars.

“Proposition 1A would issue $9.95 billion in bonds to partially fund a $45 billion high-speed rail service project between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Taxpayers would pay $19.4 billion over 30 years to cover bond costs. Transportation experts have noted that the project has grown increasingly expensive and could cost as much as $81 billion by 2030.”

With cost of unknown eminent domain “takings” I am comfortable saying that when all is said and done this high speed system will probably exceed $100 billion dollars.
The big question is how many OC resident’s will take the train rather than drive or fly within our state?

What were voters thinking during last years recession? We can now float this Bond yet are forced to make numerous cuts in state programs and services as our expenditures exceed our variable income.

While the focus of these Orange Juice posts relate to high-speed transportation in our state Mr Staley’s Reason report addresses the president’s stimulus package. He closes with the following remarks.

“In the end, high-speed rail’s contribution to the economic recovery and the nation’s economic productivity is being oversold. Elected officials, from Rep. Cantor to President Obama, would do a far greater service to the public’s understanding of the economy if they would focus on economic fundamentals, not glitzy boutique policy programs that will inevitably fail to meet grandiose expectations they have created for them.”

Sam Staley, Ph.D., is director of urban growth and land use policy for Reason Foundation and co-author of Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield).

Folks. This is just another piece of the AB 32 Master Plan to get us out of our cars and cul-de-sac homes, into TOD projects in the name of reducing the size of our carbon footprint. Another expression would be “behavioral change” to save the planet.

About Larry Gilbert