Aaron Renn has a post on New Geography pronouncing American high-speed rail dead. His reasoning: the stimulus spread the money around too much, Republican Governors rejected the HSR stimulus money, rail advocates have called 110 mph legacy lines high-speed rail, the FRA hobbles good passenger rail. All of those factors are true – though some cancel out, e.g. the 110 mph pretend-HSR lines in Wisconsin and Ohio were the first on the chopping block – but California HSR marches on.
Reading California HSR Blog gives an impression that the project is controversial, but in no real risk of disappearing. While some of the money from the canceled lines went to chaff, a lot went to California, which already has enough money to build a demonstration line in the Central Valley and is already looking at leveraging other money it will get to reach either Los Angeles or the Bay Area. Moreover, although the authority still carries over a lot of past incompetence, the current administration of Roelof van Ark is looking at alternatives to reduce costs, such as reducing the number and length of viaducts and even revisiting past alignment decisions. The adults are more firmly in charge today than a year and a half ago.
There’s still NIMBYism, particularly from Central Valley farmers and from suburbs on the San Francisco Peninsula, but the former is no big deal by the standards of what TGV construction has to go through, and the latter has simply led the authority to focus on connecting HSR track to Los Angeles first and use legacy track at slightly lower speed with much less local impact to get to San Francisco. Whether the project will ultimately have a useful starter line or remain a Bakersfield-Fresno-Merced shuttle depends on how much private funding it can attract, but Japan promised to fund 50% of the line, and the authority has had meetings with Spain and China. It’d be enough to do at least LA-Fresno, which is quite useful, if not as good as LA-Fresno-San Francisco.
Moreover, calling HSR dead on New Geography and saying it’s because Republican Governors rejected the money is ironic, in light of who owns the site. Aaron is interested in reform and efficiency; the same can’t be said of New Geography executive editor Joel Kotkin, an anti-urbanist so uninformed and desperate he blamed megacities for AIDS.
Kotkin may be just uninformed, but contributing editor Wendell Cox goes further: he and fellow Reason transportation hack Robert Poole wrote a report claiming, on flimsy evidence, that Florida’s high-speed rail line would have huge cost overruns and ridership shortfalls (a later report released by professional consultants said in fact the line would have been more profitable than expected). The report is a lie, and Rick Scott’s cancellation of the Florida HSR line, based on the report, involved additional lying to the court.
My explanation, hoisted from a comment I wrote on the subject on the Infrastructurist, responding to commenter Colin Prime:
1. The executive summary – i.e. what most people would read – says, “This report estimates that the cost to Florida taxpayers could be $3 billion more than currently projected.” As it turns out, in the body of the report in the section on Flyvbjerg the report says $0.54-2.7 billion, with $1.2 billion as the likeliest. None of these lower figures appears in the executive summary. That alone suggests massive deception.
2. In fact, Flyvbjerg either talks about megaprojects in general or focuses on urban rail. HSR projects don’t run over budget frequently, and when they do, it’s not by 100%. In Norway, a 50% cost overrun on the HSR line to the airport (coming from geological problems) was considered so unusual it triggered a government investigation.
3. Here’s the report on California [the projected per-km cost of the Central Valley segment is much higher than that of the Florida line]: “The California segment is not being built to full high-speed rail standards, because of a legal requirement that the line be usable by conventional Amtrak services if the Los Angeles to San Francisco project is not completed. The line would be upgraded to full high-speed rail standards when and if the much longer route is completed.”
This is technically known as “a lie.” Making the line Amtrak-usable is actually a cost raiser rather than a cost saver, because Amtrak trains are heavier and therefore elevated structures would have to be beefed up. Otherwise the line is built to HSR standards in terms of the expensive bits, i.e. track geometry and physical infrastructure; the only component that may not be included in California in this round is electrification, which is a fraction of the total cost of HSR ($3 million per
milekilometer at Acela costs).
4. In general, of the 11 factors cited for California-Florida differences, the ones on which Florida would be more expensive than California are all small things like stations and electricity; the big items involve physical infrastructure, and there Florida would be cheaper.
5. To support the assertion that HSR can suffer from a ridership shortfall, the report mentions Eurostar and THSR. Unmentioned are the many TGV lines that exceeded projections. The report also makes a spurious comparison to the Acela; it even doubles-down on the Acela comparison, and uses a false comparison to make the Florida line look slow. Florida’s travel time is compared not with end-to-end travel time on the average fast train (an average of 80 mph on the Acela NY-DC, and 140 mph on the Sanyo Shinkansen) but with the fastest intermediate segment on the fastest train of the day, connecting two small cities (100 and 170, respectively). On top of it, the Acela is priced for premium travel, with coach travel provided by the 66 mph Regional.
6. To add insult to injury, Cox and Poole dismiss Florida’s tourism as such: “The metropolitan areas in both markets [NEC and Florida] have substantial tourist volumes.” In reality, the tourist volumes in Florida relative to the metro area size are much larger than in the Northeast, and the Florida line directly serves tourist attractions (airport to Disneyland) whereas the Acela does not (minimal airport service, premium brand).
Given the above issues the study, I’d say calling it a lie is fair.
High-speed rail has challenges, many correctly identified by Aaron. The FRA is an obstacle (though the people most interested in changing it tend to be good transit activists); spreading the money around was a problem. But right-wing populists who can’t govern soon become unpopular, and are thus an ephemeral phenomenon. Rick Scott’s approval rate is 27%, John Kasich‘s is 35%, Scott Walker‘s is 37%. And it’s deeply troubling to go on a website and say that high-speed rail is dead when one of the reasons it’s dead is shoddy or dishonest work done by another contributor to the same website.
Fortunately, in California, the real obstacle is so far not a huge deal (California is planning to run on dedicated tracks, or at least on tracks shared only with commuter trains), and the ephemeral obstacle lost the gubernatorial election. Money is a problem and so is incompetence, but the incompetence seems to be waning, albeit slowly, and the money is likely to materialize. Don’t count HSR out yet.