Pull brake on HSR project


Four years ago, I wrote a column promoting California’s high-speed rail project. I believed then, and I believe now, that linking cities throughout the Golden State with a bullet train that travels from San Francisco to Los Angeles in two hours will provide tremendous economic benefits. Unfortunately, a lot has happened with HSR that has tarnished much of my optimism for the project.
In four years, HSR has more than doubled in estimated costs. It now hangs in limbo for a lack of realistic sources of financial commitment. In the South Valley region, people who once promoted HSR have had a change of heart, hit by the reality of how construction will dramatically and permanently change Morgan Hill, San Martin and Gilroy. In recent weeks, an analysis of the project by a peer review group warns it is a high risk endeavor, potentially wasting $6 billion in the general fund that would limit funding for public education and other services.
Despite the problems, I still want to believe there’s a future for a HSR system spanning most of the length of the Golden State. California has two major challenges looming that HSR might help us address. The first is the future supply of fossil fuels. As conventional oil starts to become a scarcer resource, the price of gasoline and the price of jet fuel will climb significantly, making travel more expensive and dampening our state’s economy.
The second issue is population. The number of people in California is projected to rise from 34 million to as many as 60 million by the year 2050. People will need to have a travel system that is not only affordable and energy-efficient, but also convenient and fast.
Highway 101 and Interstate 5 – the major thoroughfares joining southern and northern California – will not be able to sustain a doubling of traffic. And major airports in the state won’t be able to manage double the travelers. A HSR system built during the next two decades, however, might make a difference in sustaining our state’s travel system.
Good-quality and affordable mass transportation is vital in maintaining our state’s economy. People and goods must move in a safe, timely and cost effective system – or we’ll see economic stagnation in the Golden State.
A good transportation system is also vital to maintaining our tourism industry. In 2010, direct travel spending accounted for $95.1 billion in revenue in California, creating 873,000 jobs and generating $2.1 billion in local taxes and $4 billion in state tax.
When it comes to a HSR system, the problem isn’t motive. The problem is money. When California voters supported Proposition 1A in November 2008, they were told this $9.95 billion bond initiative would be the taxpayers cost for a project then touted with a total expense of $40 billion. At the end of November last year, the Legislative Analyst’s Office warned that the true cost for HSR would be $99 billion.
The rail authority also promised a figure of 1 million jobs generated from the project. That figure also turns out to be a fabrication of “job years,” based on the 22 years estimated for the project to be completed. Analysts show that only about 60,000 jobs a year would be created.
A high-speed rail system is a visionary project – one just as ambitious as the transcontinental railroad that connected the East Coast population with California when it was built in the 1860s. That project stimulated commerce and created jobs as it built communities throughout America along its tracks. It opened the West to settlement and business opportunities. But we must remember that many of the financial investors of that construction project intentionally laid out misinformation to profit personally from public funds from the federal government.
Gov. Jerry Brown – who supports high-speed rail – and state legislators would be wise to reconsider HSR in light of the more accurate financial and job generating details before they make the decision to go through with a bond sale to pay for the Central Valley section of the project. Based on past performance of the California Rail Authority in providing accurate information, we might see a major waste of money – at least $6 billion – if this train projects gets derailed because of mismanagement or financial issues.
California’s HSR project is fundamentally flawed. It’s now time for our state leaders to pull the emergency brake on high-speed rail before we travel too far down the wrong track.

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