CAHSR Blog, L.A. Times Paint Different Pictures of High Speed Rail Planning

A video promoting High Speed Rail by the California High Speed Rail Authority

In addition to writing a charming piece on bus riding, the Times also published a piece that slammed the efforts to bring High Speed Rail to California.  While Rich Connell and Dan Weikel didn’t come right out and say that pursuit of the $45 billion for the High Speed Rail train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco; they did write an article that was long on attacking various portions of the project and light on a defense.  If you were to just read the Times article, you could conclude that:

  1. The ridership number for the High Speed Rail train are fraudulent
  2. The cost for a ticket is going up so that people won’t be able to afford it
  3. Taxpayers are going to be on the hook for all the money lost because the ridership numbers are fraudulent and nobody is going to ride it

But other than that, it’s a great idea!

As you could expect, Robert Cruickshank at the California High Speed Rail blog fired back almost immediately pointing out that if anything, the ridership estimates are probably low because they were taken before the transit boom of the last couple of years and that High Speed Rail has made money everywhere it’s been tried.  Heck, they even took umbrage with the Times presenting Long Beach State Senator Alan Lowenthal as a High Speed Rail supporter; a claim they’ve attacked several times in the past.

The largest point of contention in the Times article, was the one issue that Connell and Weikel’s research partially debunked itself, that the promise made to the state that taxpayers would not have to cover part of the operating expenses was being backed away from.

And some government watchdogs are concerned that a linchpin commitment
to taxpayers in the bullet train’s financing measure — that no local,
state or federal subsidies would be required to keep the trains
operating — may be giving way.

High-speed rail planners recently advised state lawmakers that
attracting billions in crucial private financing will probably require
government backing of future cash flow…

…But Morshed, who is stepping down next month, reiterated that some
guarantee, probably from the federal government, may be needed to
ensure that cash flow can repay front-end construction investments by
private parties. That is not uncommon in federally backed projects, he
said, and would not violate the state’s ban on taxpayer operating
subsidies.

Just over a week ago, CAHSR Blog took a look at my coverage of the Senator Boxer and Secretary LaHood meeting Downtown and took issue with my light mocking of LaHood for claiming to have never heard any criticism of High Speed Rail planning in California.  Regardless of whether the criticism is valid or not, the Times piece and the strong defense by Cruickshank show that the debate over this project is far from over and far from isolated in California.  For better or worse, the cost of High Speed Rail has subjected the line to some close scrutiny and often times that scrutiny leads to negative media coverage.

That being said, I took issue with large parts of the Times’ piece as well.  From the headline, "Some fear California’s high-speed rail won’t deliver on early promises" through the story there is a tendency to not always explain who is actually criticising the project and why. We see it again in the above quote "some government watchdog groups."  Of course, "some" people fear that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim Socialist who pals around with terrorists and "some government watchdog groups" protest with signs comparing him to Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin.  See what we did there?

Expect to see more of these kinds of debates, which have been more common in the Bay Area than Southern California in recent years, as more government and private money flows in to High Speed Rail planning and construction; there’s going to be more scrutiny and more controversy.

  • David Galvan

    Scrutiny is good. The HSR will probably be profitable along certain sections of the route, and not profitable along others.

    I just wish that the San Diego-Los Angeles segment were among the first sections being built. I’ve heard that the Surfliner is supposedly one of the most heavily used sections of intercity rail in the country, second to the northeast corridor. Whatever section of HSR opens first needs to be a clear success if funding and support is going to continue.

    Let’s hope a lot of people use the Anaheim to L.A. section, because that is going to be heavily watched.

  • skd

    Let’s face it. The LA Times is beholden to the auto industry and the airlines. They rely upon the ad revenue from car makers, car dealerships, airlines and ancillary industries.
    So when they publish an article decrying the High Speed Rail project. They do it for self-serving purposes. This is not a valid article nor a valid argument. If we are to reduce our reliance on imported oil, if we are to clean our air and reduce our carbon footprint, there is only one solution. High Speed Rail.

    The LA Times is losing money, they are simply trying to assuage those advertisers that are spending less money and fleeing their pages.

  • We’ve already paid for the high speed railroad and I don’t see a high speed railroad. I can’t believe this passed again!!

  • David Galvan

    @skd:

    The L.A. Times supported and endorsed the high speed rail bond (Prop 1A) before the election:

    http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/opinion/la-ed-endorsements2-2008oct02,0,2312420.story

    How does that fit into your conspiracy theory that the L.A. Times only prints things that support the auto-industries / airlines?

  • This is a likely $80-110 billion dollar taxpayer investment primarily financed through the state (NOT federal) budget, which, need I remind anyone, is in constant disarray. More criticism was needed BEFORE the election. Just like some LA Times reporters waited until after the election to hammer home the 2036 opening date for Measure R’s headliner project, here again the Times is a day late and a dollar short on HSR criticism.

    Mountains of data criticizing the ridership projections and thereby operational cost estimates, along with the capital cost estimates, and environmental benefits were available for the Times and other publications to report on before voters went to the polls and voted. Why is the Times waiting until now to begin to touch the surface?

    I agree with Dr. Schweitzer that this project is going to be California’s version of the Big Dig. But I’ll go a step further and say it will be worse, because unlike the Big Dig, CAHSR will primarily be funded through general fund obligation bonds for a state that doesn’t invest enough in the DAILY operational/capital transportation needs of the majority of citizens AND whose budget is in constant state of turmoil. The implications are great. Much greater than any HSR advocate wants to admit or HSR fantasy ride voter has been exposed.

  • There was plenty of debate when 1A was on the ballot. The opponents in fact had little scrutiny of their often dubious arguments and motives. And of course after this debate it still passed.

    Until recently the hopes of federal funding to any significant degree seemed far fetched. That has changed.

    The private investment portion of the funding is the third part of the puzzle, and we’ll see in the next year or so how feasible that is to put in place.

    The technology is well established and the simple question we have to ask is does it make sense. We are close to actually beginning to acquire right of way for the mid-section, and starter segments are being evaluated. It is a project of astonishing size and complexity, and yet despite the current dysfunctional state of governance in California it seems to be working its way to actually over time becoming a reality. An amazing process to watch unfold.

  • DW

    “High Speed Rail has made money everywhere it’s been tried.”

    If that were true, the government wouldn’t have to get involved. All it would have to do is get out of the way.

    Alas, while politicians want their toy train sets, we’re the one’s who will pay for boondoggles such as these.

  • DW, boondoggles are not HSR but things like Las Vegas monorail and Shanghai maglev. The accurate statement is HSR ticket revenue covers the cost of its operations. But government assistance is needed to build the lines. No different than New York subway circa 1900.

  • DW

    I guess I could run a break-even operation, too, if someone fronted me $100 billion in startup costs.

    Dana, the first 100 million (yes, 100 million!!!) rides will cost $1,000 each in construction costs alone.

    Do you have any idea how long it will take to get 100 million rides? A more reasonable horizon is 10 million rides, which will run a whopping $10,000 EACH!

    Do the math. This idea is absurd.

  • David Galvan

    @Damien Goodmon: There was plenty of criticism of CAHSR before the election. The L.A. Times even referenced the Reason Foundation’s own cost/benefit analysis in their endorsement of prop 1A, available in the link I posted in an earlier comment, saying:

    “The projections by the measure’s opponents, led by the libertarian Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, are much less sanguine and more persuasive. If voters approve Proposition 1a, it seems close to a lead-pipe cinch that the California High-Speed Rail Authority will ask for many billions more in the coming decades, and the Legislature will have to scrape up many millions of dollars in operating subsidies.”

    This was before the election. They recognized that the real numbers probably lied somewhere between the anti-rail Reason foundation’s guesses and the CAHSR authority’s guesses. But they still endorsed prop 1A because having an HSR is a real investment in our state’s future. Yes it will be expensive. But yes it will be worth it.

  • David Galvan

    @DW your estimates are assuming this project is going to cost $100 Billion. Estimates I’ve seen put it between $40B and $80 B. Never seen anything suggest it will cost $100 Billion.

    Also, attacking this transportation project because it doesn’t completely “pay for itself” in terms of instructions is silly unless you are going to attack all transportation related projects, including the interstate highway system, which has NEVER covered its construction + operating costs with gas-tax user fees.
    http://usa.streetsblog.org/2009/11/24/new-report-road-funding-from-non-road-users-doubled-in-25-years/

    The bottom line is that these advanced and effective means of transportations (be they interstate highways or high speed rail) are expensive and there is no private company that can afford to both build and operate them and make a profit. Even the toll lanes on many freeways were originally built as public projects using public money and then moved over to private company management, so most companies running the toll lanes didn’t have to front the cost of actually building that part of the freeway.

    The fact that these projects are expensive does not mean we shouldn’t do them. they are large investments that pay off for the public good in the long (multi-decade) term.

  • DW

    David, is there any limit to how much you will spend on something like this?

    Let’s say the cost is $40 billion–your low end.

    Again, the first 10 MILLION rides cost $400 each in construction costs. That’s insane.

    $40 billion is over $1000 for every man, woman and child in California. You cannot be serious. This is for one single rail line.

    Fantasies are just that…fantasies.

  • Fantasies? This is a well tested technology that has been operating in Europe and Asia for decades.

    DW, you can link up with the vague collection of NIMBYs, dubious characters etc. who argue against this project. It won’t accomplish much, but I guess it will give you somewhere to vent you spleen which seems to be your chief occupation.

  • DW

    Dana, given that the facts contradict your position, I doubt that it comes as no surprise to anyone that you have resorted to ad hominem attacks.

    Good day.

  • David Galvan

    DW, you have to remember that the choice is not: pay $40-$80 Billion for high speed rail, or pay nothing. The choice is: pay a huge amount of money to create a new mode of intercity transportation, or pay a huge amount of money to continue to upgrade and expand our existing modes of intercity transportation.

    The population of California has been estimated to increase by something like 50% between 2000 and 2025.

    ( http://www.census.gov/population/projections/state/9525rank/caprsrel.txt )

    (2000 population was 32.5 million, 2025 projection is 49.3 million, and the 2008 estimate of CA population is 36.76, so this seems to be about on track
    http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/06000.html )

    The number of people embarking on intercity travel in the state will likely scale with that increase. The people are coming, like it or not, and the state will have to accommodate intercity transportation needs one way or another. This means that, if we just say “forget it! HSR costs too much!”, then we will essentially be committing to spending those billions of $ instead on expanding freeways by building more lanes, and increasing either the number of airports or the number of airport terminals (which often means acquiring more land and obvious construction costs) to accommodate the additional required flights. Obviously, making various changes to the airports would probably incur many billions of $ throughout the state (concentrated at LAX and SFO). And building new freeway lanes is expensive as well: the widening of a 10-mile stretch of the 405 is going to cost over $1Billion just in construction costs (not including long term maintenance of that freeway). I don’t think it’s ridiculous to think that many more upgrades like this one will be needed to increase freeway capacity to accomodate the increased population thorughout the state.

    And, if we do commit to just expanding the modes we already have (auto and airplane), then we are limiting our future transportation options to just those two modes. If, however, we spent the money to build out a THIRD mode, we are not only accommodating the required increase in capacity, we are providing travelers with additional options to meet their needs.

    So, to answer your original question: Yes there is an upper limit to the amount I’d be willing to spend on a project like this, and that upper limit is a bit more than the cost of simply expanding freeway and airport capacity to accommodate the additional trips instead. I say MORE than that cost, because I think there is some added value in having an entirely new mode of transit.

    Now the estimates of the cost of these options vary across the board. CA HSR authority estimates going the non-HSR route would end up costing twice as much as going the HSR route (http://www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov/news.asp?type=faqs) . You can believe their numbers or not, but I have not seen anything yet that would convince me it’s going to be a hell of a lot cheaper to expand airports and freeways over the next 15-20 years instead of spending $40-$80B on a new rail line.

    Add to that the fact that the rail line is going to be more environmentally friendly than airplanes are ever going to be, and avoid the gridlock caused by electric/hybrid cars, AND the fact that HSR lines are indeed successful in many other places around the world, and it seems to me like the HSR plan is a good one.

    And, again, the argument that HSR should not be built because one doesn’t think it will make a profit doesn’t make any sense to me. No major transportation project makes a “profit” when you include its construction costs. You exchange your invested money for the benefit of having the system. Having a postal system, having a standing military, having an interstate freeway system, having an unemployment and welfare system. . . these are things we as taxpayers fund because they benefit our society, not because we are trying to make a profit. IF these things were profitable, there would be private companies running them. Government/taxpayer funding is appropriate for things that society needs/wants when those things are not profitable.

    Finally:
    @Damien Goodmon:

    You appear to be taking the stance that this money would be much better spent on improving INTRAcity transportation instead of INTERcity transportation. That is a defensible position; but in reality as our state’s population increases and expands in geographic distribution, we need to develop BOTH.

    Regarding the link you posted with opinion by Schweitzer: It seems from reading her opinion that her main problem with the proposed HSR plan is the funding strategy. I have no argument with that. She says about HSR: “. . .the way to get this system built is to apply a carbon tax to fuel consumption across all modes and then use the money to juice up transit provision in general, as quickly as possible.” I say great! Let’s do that! But the reality of politics in this state and in this country is that raising a carbon tax is just a lot less likely to happen. This kind of argument is analogous to people who opposed Measure R simply because it was a regressive sales tax instead of some other more progressive (but less politically viable) funding mechanism. Is the funding system ideal? No. But it is likely the only way to get this system started.

  • For me this is about opportunity costs. HSR will produce benefits, but that doesn’t mean it will produce the most benefits per dollar of expenditure. At a time when transit agencies are cutting back on service (just look at how crappy Metrolink’s or OCTA’s service frequency is), raising fares, and floating at-grade rail proposals that would be better with grade separations, I think it’s only natural that people question the value of prioritizing HSR.

    HSR will be neat and all, but, as a regular transit rider, I can’t see it having much effect on my day-to-day life. Most of the trips I make won’t be served by HSR, and the really long trips I take are so long that HSR won’t be able to compete with the amount of time it takes to fly (I know that’s a big eco sin, but I do buy carbon offsets).

    Basic transit service may not be as sexy as HSR, but it’s more important. Money is tight, we have to spend it right (or “well” but that doesn’t rhyme).

  • Spokker

    If HSR did not exist would they be spending it on transit? Probably not.

  • DW

    “(I know that’s a big eco sin, but I do buy carbon offsets).”

    Traveling Medicine Show Al thanks you for buying his elixir.

  • @ DW

    I like how conservatives hate climate science because they associate it with Al Gore. If a Democrat says something it must be wrong. Brilliant reasoning.

    @ Spokker

    In the short run you’re right. In the long run, it’s worth making an argument about the most efficient way to spend transit money. If people can be made to see that the goals of HSR can be met better some other way, they might redirect their spending.

    The way I see it, if you want to reduce air travel, slap a big tax on airline tickets (that raises money instead of costing money). That gives people an incentive to teleconference and live closer to each other (and makes HSR more viable if it is built). If the goal is reducing VMT through infrastructure, you have to invest in the day-to-day trips that, for most people, make up the majority of VMT.

    Whenever we spend money one way we give up the chance to spend it another way. Anything is possible with political will. Until a lot more people can get to work and errands on quality transit, I’m going to be skeptical of HSR.

  • DW

    Chewie, when a guy makes a cool billion of a hoax he was instrumental in perpetrating, then your stereotypes and partisanship become irrelevant.

    “The way I see it, if you want to reduce air travel, slap a big tax on airline tickets (that raises money instead of costing money).”

    Until people quit flying. Ref: Tobacco taxes.

  • Spokker

    Many goals have been touted by HSR supporters but I personally don’t focus on HSR and its ability to save the environment, reduce VMT or create jobs, though it might do those things to some extent.

    I just think it’s a technology designed to facilitate travel and stimulate commerce. Teleconferencing is great, yet business people will always want to have the option to make deals face to face. Living closer to each other is something I don’t quite get. Do we all move to San Francisco or Los Angeles?

    Neither teleconferencing or living closer together will satisfy our desire to travel, be it for pleasure, business or to see family and friends. We want to facilitate tourism for both California residents, out of towners and foreigners. The airline industry has demonstrated quite clearly that they are not up to the task and the American public is showing a growing distaste for air travel.

    It’s an expensive project, sure, hamstrung by Californian incompetence (you see that same incompetence in some local efforts to improve mass transit, by the way). I like the idea of a balanced budget, but I don’t want to change the system in the middle of a recession. I think California is screwed without either a federal bailout or the ability to go into deficit spending in order to stimulate the economy. As we cut back in California, expect more strife, more suffering, more sadness and more desperation. I think that translates into increases in crime. But I don’t know for sure.

    But I find myself convincing myself of the jobs angle in this very post. I want to see people building high speed rail. Maybe the construction worker won’t resort to selling drugs, or stealing what little I have.

    Who knows? I’ve got to take a dump, anyway.

  • NONIMBYS

    build it morons

  • DW, you seem to be saying that CAHSR is one line, equivalent to one plane route. There are four major cities in the plan and that gives you 8 different routes right there. How much money has be spent on airport (and ancillary) improvements in those four cities alone? What fraction of air traffic out of those four cities is going into the other four? What about all the other smaller places? Those routes are often heavily subsidised.

  • DW

    Corey, here are the four cities: San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco.

    How long do you think it will take to get from San Diego to Sacramento on this route? It’s a 90-minute flight.

    Even better, I’ve seen estimates as long as six hours between LA and San Francisco, due to problems of urbanization, stops, and geography. What good is a 200 mph train if it takes 6 hours to go less than 400 miles?

  • @ DW

    The hoax is casting doubt on climate science. For every dollar Al Gore makes, Exxon et al. make thousands selling oil. They haven’t neglected to lobby Congress or the public.

    With regard to living closer together. My mother’s side of the family used to live in the Midwest. Several years ago, most of them moved to Southern California so that we could all be closer together. Now instead of flying, we can take trips within the region to see each other.

    Jobs are important, especially now, but we can create construction jobs doing any number of things. At the end of the day, the infrastructure we choose to build will be around for a long time and it would be a shame if we built the wrong project just for the sake of short-term job creation. This is one of my beefs with the ARRA. There are plenty of freeway projects that were shovel ready and got money and are creating jobs, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the best use of our resources.

    Another thing to consider is that driving isn’t as bad for the environment on a per capita basis when you’re carpooling. So, for a family vacation from LA to San Francisco, you’ve got maybe four people in a Minivan that gets 20MPG. That’s 80 passenger miles per gallon, and four tickets on HSR.

  • easterner

    “Again, the first 10 MILLION rides cost $400 each in construction costs.”

    Apparently you are completely ignorant of the number of intercity rail passengers in CA TODAY. After Northeast Regional and Acela, the #3, #4, and #5 rail passenger corridors in the US TODAY are in.. California. Pacific Surfliners(2.6M), San Joaquins (0.9M), and Capitol Corridor(1.6M). The first 10 million rides might take.. a month or 3.

    CA has a transportation capacity problem. Pave the entire state with highways, build a huge airport in every rinky dink town – or move a significant fraction of travelers on the busiest routes on trains. Having tried the first two approaches, CA has now chosen to follow the lead of much of the rest of the industrialized world.

    You don’t see the car companies offering to build highways, or the airlines offering to build airports, do you?

  • DW

    easterner, you’re claiming 10,000,000 rides on this line in 90 days. That’s over 110,000 per day, every day. If it’s your original 30 day horizon, it’s 330,000 per day.

    You cannot be serious.

  • easterner

    The current 3 corridors carry over 5 million passengers a year, and they do not directly connect SF or SF with LA. Given that level of ridership on conventional rail lines, there is no reason to think that the planned system (with at least some of the end-to-end routes running) would immediately carry several to many times as many people.

    If you are not used to using busy trains, it is hard to comprehend what goes on every day. Despite all the airport access roads, huge parking garages, and lots of advertising by the airports and airlines, Acela Express carries more passengers in the DC-NYC market than all the airlines COMBINED. No big deal. Every day.

  • ml

    @easterner

    5 million passenger trips a year is a fairly small amount of daily trips, especially given that Amtrak ridership has a flatter (by comparison) weekday demand to weekend demand ratio.

    RE: Surfliner — 2.6 million trips/year is somewhere around 7500-8000 daily trips. It is not a large number.

    You could use Passenger Miles Traveled instead, since Intercity Passenger Rail trips tend to be fairly long distance. Intercity Passenger rail looks much stronger when analyzed with that particular performance measure.

  • I used to lock my bike up on my front porch with a basic cable lock. A miraculously timed look outside one night just before turning in found two punks creeping up my front steps. They retreated post haste when I threw open the front door and charged after them knowing full well they weren’t trying to steal my shrubs.

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