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Making real choices on high-speed rail

The nation’s biggest public works project could end up as the biggest boondoggle in history, according to Mike Rosenberg and Gary Richards of the San Jose Mercury News, who scour up a myriad of reasons why linking California’s major cities by high speed rail will be a colossal failure.

According to the story, voters were hoodwinked into approving just shy of $10 billion in bonds for a project estimated at the time to cost about four times that. Even with a quarter of this year’s federal appropriation for high speed rail going to the California project, the gap between committed funding and the actual, final cost is growing and growing.

Meanwhile, official ‘guestimates’ of ticket prices have more than doubled, with ridership projections remaining the same. Construction budgets and ridership projections are being questioned and several tony enclaves are threatening to sue over the proposed alignment. All this — two years before the first track is scheduled to be laid.

Are federal officials throwing money down a rabbit hole? The story presents conclusions from an unnamed study, which found public works projects frequently exceed their projected budgets [thanks, Captain Obvious!]. And that the average urban rail project is delivered for 45 percent more money than initially planned.

Forget for a moment that much of the route is rural and that high speed rail networks are proving generally popular and efficient around the world. The naysayers have some points. It will take a cultural sea change away from the automobile (high gas prices), and regulatory prodding Americans are certain to resist — such as reducing the number of landing slots at airports for intrastate air travel—to assure financial success.

Still, it’s time for officials to consider rail transport as a third leg of a transportation triad, rather than a sop to rural congressmen or a favor for aerophobics.

Hundreds of daily short haul flights needlessly congest airports with shuttle flights on small jets. Frustrating delays in the nation’s skies and wildly expensive new runway projects should be building public pressure for re-regulating the airlines — especially since so many airlines are barely profitable anyway.

Nevertheless, the telling detail in the story raises suspicions about everything and everyone tied to the project.

[C]ritics have questioned why the authority failed to account for inflation — which caused cost estimates to jump by about $7 billion — until after voters approved the project.

[Calfornia High Speed Rail Authority Board Member Rod] Diridon said the board did so because it’s tough to predict inflation rates and because federal officials only recently asked for the data.

Apparently, cheerleaders for the nation’s most advanced transportation system ever proposed are incapable of using 15-year-old technology to find this chart. As they say in chatrooms, hey Rod — I included a special link just for you.

One Response to “Making real choices on high-speed rail”

  1. Bill Harshaw:

    I’d be a little cautious about judging such projects. I remember when Dulles Airport was being built in the 1950′s. And lived in the DC area since 1968. And remember stories about how nobody used Dulles because National was so much more convenient. And the Dulles access road was underused. Bottomline: it was a boondoggle, an example of wasted public funds.

    It’s now 55 years later and such sentiments are long gone. So it’s quite possible the high speed rail will be a disastrous failure during the decade it opens, and a great example of foresight some 40 years later.

    comment at 22. August 2010

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