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Archive for the ‘high speed rail’ Category

I’ve written several articles over the years critical of California’s high-speed rail debacle. The last one was in November 2017. I suggested that gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom might come to his senses and end the project. After all, he was once against it, but flipped lest he alienate his union supporters in the primary.

The election behind him, he did just that.

Sort of.

While effectively cancelling the biggest and most costly segments, he left the 150 mile Bakersfield to Merced connection untouched. Whether there will be enough funding to complete even that remains to be seen given the history of cost overruns and unreliable estimates.

I really do not think he cares. It is just to soften the blow to the project’s misguided fans and political allies who would have benefited from the money pit it was destined to become from the start. Governor Newsom will not be in office when even this segment hits the wall.

But let’s say it is completed.

There is yet another obstacle.

Proposition 1A stipulated that there could be no government operating subsidy- federal, state or local; the train has to run in the black. One has to question whether there is enough of a market in the Central Valley to generate asequate revenue to cover the fixed costs, not to mention the marginal costs. It is not as if fares can be raised willy-nilly to close losses. There is an inverse relationship between ridership and fares.

So what will happen when the train cannot legally operate?

A federal bailout?

Regardless of who controls Congress years from now, the taxpayers in the other 49 states will not be receptive to propping up the product of California’s recklessness. They have their infrastructure priorities, too.

Before Newsom fully commits to the Central Valley line, he should engage reputable analysts free from political influence to fully understand the market there. Up until now, the focus has been on the ridership from each of the end points – The Bay Area and Metro L A.

CAHSR is now a short line with a different set of demographics driving it.

Don’t let politics get in the way.

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As much as the California High Speed Rail Authority would like to hold its own version of the Golden Spike ceremony that marked the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, it is more likely to experience rusty nails driven into its already beleaguered and overly-optimistic business plan.

The latest derailment affecting the timeline – and undoubtedly the cost – is a two-year delay in completing environmental reviews of the project.

This news comes on top of growing concerns about tunneling, not just in the San Gabriel Mountains,  but the Pacheco Pass connecting San Jose with the San Joaquin Valley. Even if the almost 14 miles of tunnel is bored, it could be a budget-buster and throw the project even further behind. In view of this challenge, attracting bond investors will be difficult for this segment; yields would have to be enhanced to generate investment, diminishing the already slim prospects of the system operating in the black.

When voters approved $9 billion in bonds in 2008 to start the project, the measure stated that operating subsidies from public funds would not be permitted.  But we are on the fast track to just such support.  The costs, which will most certainly blow through the current estimate of $64 billion, could easily triple.  Although large overruns are common on major projects (i.e., Boston’s Big Dig was over five-times the original estimate), the public was misled as to this possibility with HSR.

So far, nothing has been delivered according to promises made in selling the concept to the voters – not even close.  Even the train speed has been downgraded.

I happen to be a fan of rail travel.  I used Amtrak and Metrolink to commute from LA to Irvine.  I often thought how much more comfortable and reliable the trip could have been had the trains been able to run on dedicated tracks, free from freight traffic delays.  The current engines can run at 100 miles per hour.  While not high speed, there would be no reason why most commuters from the far suburbs of Los Angeles couldn’t reach downtown in about an hour.

Instead of pouring billions into HSR, a system which will serve a relatively very thin segment of the traveling public, we can relieve much traffic from our clogged freeways in Southern California by investing in the region’s rail infrastructure – far more than could be reduced on I-5 through the San Joaquin Valley by the bullet train.

A similar investment could be made in the Bay Area with the same results.

There would be no costly tunneling in either market.

Our next governor should kill this vanity project.  Candidate Newsom was once on record as opposing  the project.…maybe he will come back to his senses.  His key opponent, former mayor Villaraigosa, has always been for it.

The voters should demand that both candidates explain just how they plan to fund it.

 

 

 

 

 

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