Railroad Fantasies

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

At New Geography, Wendell Cox explains why, even though "Florida and Ohio have walked away from dubious train projects," California is still talking about building a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The mantra goes something like, "yes high speed rail is expensive, but it would cost even more to not build it." Yes, indeed, it is expensive, starting at the low estimate of $98.5 billion the press and proponents usually cite to the nearly $118 billion that the California High Speed Rail Authority itself indicates. Advocates then cite a $171 billion figure as what Californian's [sic] would have to pay if they didn't build the line.
Setting aside the "missing cost" that is almost always left out of such cost-benefit analyses, there is, in this case, another cost that one hopes even politicians might be unwilling to pay: credibility. According to the Los Angeles Times:
The rail authority has relied heavily on New York-based Parsons Brinkerhoff, a contractor that helped fund the political campaign for the $9.9-billion bond measure passed by voters in 2008.... In October, Parsons submitted the analysis that came up with the $171 billion, a number that initially appeared in the authority's draft business plan released Nov. 1. In the study, Parsons first estimated how much passenger capacity the system would have at completion in 2033 and then calculated the cost for providing the same airport and highway capacity.

Parsons said the high-speed rail system could carry 116 million passengers a year, based on running trains with 1,000 seats both north and south every five minutes, 19 hours a day and 365 days a year. The study assumes the trains would be 70% full on average. 
Cox turns to a Mother Jones piece for how someone from the "reality-based" end of the political spectrum (who, in his case, actually lives up to the name, if only for an instant) reacts to this blatant deceit:
This is just jaw-droppingly shameless. There's not even a pretense here of providing a reasonable, real-world traffic estimate that could be used to project the cost of alternative infrastructure. A high school sophomore who turned in work like this would get an F.

We are rapidly exiting the realm of rose-colored glasses and entering the realm of pure fantasy here. If liberals keep pushing this project forward in the face of plain evidence that its official justifications are brazenly preposterous, conservatives are going to be able to pound us year after year for wasting taxpayer money while we retreat to ever more ridiculous and self-serving defenses that make us laughingstocks in the public eye. And unless we put this project on hold until we can get some genuinely independent and plausible estimates of costs, ridership, and alternatives, we'll deserve it.
While I am not optimistic that this tomfoolery will lead to this project's cancellation, I am encouraged by the fact that some journalists sniffed this out. Either the exposure will stop this project dead, giving politicians incentive to at least base part of their proposals on reality -- or it won't, encouraging politicians to continue ignoring facts, and making them easy targets for other such journalists and any pundit who can successfully elicit outrage from the public over this.

-- CAV

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