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A Shorter Route From No Place To Nowhere

construction of the Fresno River Viaduct.
Construction of the Fresno River Viaduct, part of California High-Speed Rail, in September 2016.
Photo courtesy the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom gave his state a present recently in the form of a long-overdue reality check. Unfortunately, like California’s proposed high-speed rail corridor, it will not go far enough.

In his first State of the State address, Newsom acknowledged what has long been obvious to many observers: that the high-speed rail project voters originally approved in 2008 has spiraled out of control. It has progressed from an idea that made little sense to one that made no sense at all, even as its price tag grew from $45 billion to $77 billion. “Let’s get real,” Newsom said. “The project as planned would cost too much and take too long.”

As I wrote back in 2012, people traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles already have plenty of options for getting from one city to the other, including multiple combinations of highways, air carriers and airports. A Los Angeles Times poll that year found that 69 percent of Californians said they would seldom if ever ride the train if it were available – and this was assuming it eventually went somewhere more desirable than the initial planned stretch in California’s Central Valley.

Newsom’s call to get real did not go so far as to scrap the rail plan entirely, however. Instead, the governor said the Central Valley segment will no longer connect to the Bay Area. The 171-mile stretch will span Merced to Bakersfield, reducing costs by limiting service to a route that few people would ever be likely to use.

Newsom’s speech was followed by the announcement that the Trump administration would block further funding to the project and seek to reclaim federal funds already spent under what are now admittedly false pretenses. The Wall Street Journal reported the federal government would cancel approximately $1 billion in promised future funding for California’s high-speed rail, casting doubt on whether even the governor’s new, scaled-back version of the system can become reality. The Federal Railroad Administration is also considering a legal effort to reclaim the $2.5 billion in federal funds California previously received.

California’s current plan – in a generous use of that term – is to build a train solely from no place anyone wants to be to no place anyone wants to go. Sorry, Central Valley; if this had been the stated goal from the beginning, even the choo-choo buffs in the Obama administration probably couldn’t have brought themselves to back it. In fact, even Central Valley’s leaders seem unenthusiastic about the prospect, observing that a connection to Silicon Valley was more or less the entire point of the rail line for their communities. In its pointlessness, this new way forward is reminiscent of Fort Lauderdale, Florida’s late and little-mourned trolley-that-shall-not-be-named.

While California’s high-speed rail project may have been arguably the highest-profile effort to boost train infrastructure in recent years, it was not the only one. The Obama administration was bullish on trains and eager to distribute funding to states that wanted to build rail infrastructure. Illinois, for example, has also chased the elusive goal of high-speed rail. Yet after an estimated $2 billion in spending, the new line between Chicago and St. Louis will shave only an hour off the current five-and-a-half-hour train trip. (Driving takes approximately five hours.) This is, in part, because the new trains will have to share track with much slower freight train traffic. Even Amtrak’s Washington to Boston Acela service manages up to 150 miles per hour, while the new Illinois service will have a maximum speed of only 110.

I have nothing against passenger trains per se. I have been enthusiastic from the beginning about Florida’s Brightline project, a privately financed enterprise that connects Fort Lauderdale, Miami and West Palm Beach, with a planned expansion to Orlando and possibly beyond. Trains make sense on densely populated, heavily traveled short-haul interurban routes and in many metro areas. They make little sense, however, across long distances where the speed of flying negates any time savings and the door-to-door convenience of driving negates any cost savings.

Publicly financed trains seldom, if ever, pay for even their day-to-day operations out of passenger fares, let alone capital replacement and improvement. Trains, tracks and signals all have the tendency to wear out and become obsolete over time. Privately financed trains – such as the Brightline or a planned rail link between Dallas and Houston – might try to price themselves competitively against the cost of traveling by car, assuming everyone traveled in cars alone. But when you put families or other groups together, nothing beats the economics of a privately owned and driven sedan, SUV or minivan. The trusty family vehicle also comes with door-to-door service at virtually no extra cost. This model may evolve when the self-driving car arrives, but it won’t go away entirely.

Newsom did not go so far as to kill the dream of high-speed rail between California’s two largest metro areas, but the fact that he is no longer talking in concrete costs or timelines for extensions beyond the Central Valley is telling. The California plan has always been a wasteful pipe dream. The new governor’s reduced expectations are step one toward accepting this reality.

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