Wednesday, June 11, 2008

If You Want Better Trains, Should You Vote Against HSR?

HSR has been in the news lately, mostly negatively.

  • The Union Pacific has written a letter to the CAHSRA insisting that they don't want to share any of their right-of-way with high-speed-rail. Apparently they've been mentioning this all along, without any acknowledgment, and finally decided to put it in writing. The CAHSRA has pooh-pooh'ed this as just a negotiating tactic. Still, if the UP were just trying to hold out for more money, I think they'd probably do this after the project were officially in the works, and money was committed, rather than now, when it's likely to derail it.
  • There is a big question where the funding will come from. We may get a chance to vote on $10bn of bonds for this project in November, with a promise that the Feds and private investors picking up the rest. I can see the Federal government matching any state contribution, but that still leaves $20bn, which it seems like a stretch to believe private investors will pony up (Would they actually recover that investment? Would HSR actually generate a $20bn profit (or any) over any reasonable timeframe?).

Train and transit boosters tend to brush these concerns off--just vote for it, sell the bonds, and eventually it'll get built. I'm just not happy making this sort of leap of faith. A few things to consider:

  • Is the CASHRA really competent or honest enough to build this railway? The fact that they are asking us to vote on a plan where 75% of the funding is uncertain, and there is no certain place to even lay the tracks, leads me to doubt this (There are other reasons).
  • Things really could go horribly wrong. We could end up with a statewide version of BART-to-SFO (an overbuilt, underpeforming line that saps funding from better projects) or BART-to-SJ (a zombie railway that doesn't get built, but prevents cheap and practical transportation options from getting built, because compromising on what you actually can build is "betraying the trust of the voters").

I have written earlier about the Triumph of the Perverse--expensive, impractical projects are politically popular, but practical and doable ones languish.

For a recent example: there is an effort to double-track the railway between LA and San Diego, used by Amtrak, Metrolink, and Coaster. It's a pretty busy corridor, and double tracking would improve reliability, and make a higher level of service possible (probably something analogous to CalTrain). San Diego transportation folks went to Sacramento looking for funding, but were met by profound disinterest...

Before 2000, the VTA had plans to run frequent commuter trains between the East Bay and San Jose, actually had funding lined up, but scuttled the project because building BART was just so much more cool. Others have pointed out the ironic fact had the 2000 Measure A "BART Tax" failed, we would actually have had decent transit service in this corridor since about 2003!

So I wonder: if I want to see improvements to California's passenger rail network, should I vote against high-speed rail in November?

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