High speed rail in CA must be justified

In the transportation section of USA TODAY’s newspaper the headline reads “China’s fast trains may offer tips for us.” A word of caution. Before getting too enamored by bringing underfunded high-speed rail to California we must each set aside emotions and engage in a cost-benefit analysis including all key factors.

China’s newest 664 mile high speed rail connects Guangzhou and Wuhan, two major cities. The USA TODAY story confirms “Guangzhou is one of China’s richest cities, an export powerhouse whose thousands of factories manufacture many of the items found in an average US home. Wuhan is a Yantzee River port and central China’s major industrial center.”

We visited Wuhan just prior to the Olympic Games and can speak from personal observation that it is a huge metropolis where the inner city has 7 million residents while the population of San Francisco is around 800,000. I am not able to establish the daily work force of either city at this time which might impact daily commuting alternatives. However, the Chinese bullet train serving these two cities will provide a three to four hour trip for international business travelers rather than unpredictable tourism to San Francisco or Sacramento. I question how many daily riders our system will actually achieve.

Guangzhou’s population is six million as compared to Anaheim’s 350,000 or the city of LA with 3.6 million. The issue, regardless of national or regional population, is establishing realistic ridership numbers. There is no comparison between these China destinations and the major hub cities of the proposed CHSR.

In his story reporter Calum MacLeod quotes Randal O’Toule a senior Fellow at the Libertarian Cato Institute opining that “high speed rail is an obsolete technology that requires huge subsidies in France, Japan and China. Our government seems to view trains as a form of social engineering that they think is better than driving or flying.” The report follows stating “everyone will pay for these new lines through taxes, but only a few people will use them.”

Another interesting comment by Mr. O’Toule is that “less than 8% of all jobs in the US are located in the downtown of our cities” while that’s the destination of our proposed high speed system.

The reported cost of a round tip ticket on the new Chinese train is $220 round trip Vs $56 via China Southern airlines serving the same two cities.

Gilbert comments. I may disagree with Mr. O’Toul that high speed transit is obsolete but he is correct that you still need to get from your home to connect with the proposed train as well as making local connections after reaching your terminus. As to finances, documented history has shown that almost every transportation system involving trains is subsidized by the government. Another area where Mr. O’Toule and I might differ is jobs. We do not know what percentage of the proposed CA riders are commuting to work or are they simply tourists on vacation. My sense is that the short runs from Anaheim to LA are daily workers but you do not take daily round trips from San Diego to San Francisco or Sacramento.

When mayor Pringle boasts of the 20 minute trip time to LA he ignores existing trains that currently serve this short stretch. So while a Ford Taurus can get you safely from Anaheim to Union Station do we really need to upgrade to a Lexus?

At a time when Assemblyman Jose Solorio just told a world wide audience from Friday’s Transit Forum, broadcast with a live feed, that we can expect three more years of $20 billion dollar deficits I would throw out of office any elected official supporting this “special interest” project being promoted by our lame duck governor and Anaheim’s lame duck mayor. Both of these men will be out of office while California taxpayers bear the burden of back-filling the project expenditures for decades to come while statewide programs are cut or reduced.

And lastly. We have utilized high-speed transit in London mainland Europe and China. The issue for me is having the residential, industrial or business density to justify it and being able to pay for the infrastructure and operating costs, neither of which we possess in California today.

While we just received $2.25 billion from president Obama, and another $9 billion from Prop 1A’s Bond that can be used for HSR, what private sector firms are willing to invest the remaining $70 billion dollars to complete the 800 mile system?

Show me the “3 P” money which I believe is part of the requirement to proceed.

About Larry Gilbert