Advancing a Free Society

A California Train Wreck

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Kudos to Florida Gov. Rick Scott, for having the good sense to reject federal funding for a high-speed rail route between Tampa and Orlando.

Now, if only he could do the same for the train wreck of an idea that is California high-speed rail (the dream being San Francisco to Los Angeles, in 2-1/2 hours, bombing along at 220 mph).

In Florida’s case, Scott saw a plan that simply didn’t add up. The distance between the two cities is only 85-or-so miles – an hour-and-a-half drive versus a one-hour rail ride. Neither Tampa nor Orlando is well suited for life without an automobile – not unlike what one finds when arriving by train in downtown Los Angeles.

The one thing the Florida plan did having going for it: votes – and lots of them – in a state with 29 electoral votes. The I-4 Corridor, where the construction would have occurred, just happens to be chock full of independent-voting Floridians who often swing Sunshine State elections.

Unfortunately, Scott’s rejection of Washington’s largesse doesn’t mean the money goes back to DC to help balance the federal budget. Instead, it gets reallocated to other states that haven’t said no to high-speed rail. That includes California, which on Monday received $368 million from Washington to help extend the Golden State’s initial route through the Central Valley.

Sad to say: the closer you look at it, the less California’s high-speed ambitions make sense – beginning with the concept of America’s nation-state, already deeply in debt, taking out a $9 billion bond to begin construction of the project. The final price tag: a minimum of $40 billion ($50 billion-and-beyond maybe more likely), at a time when both Sacramento and Washington are talking fiscal austerity.

Moreover, a group of Silicon Valley researchers have concluded that project’s funding already is on shaky ground – an over-reliance on federal funding and ticket sales.

And there’s the practical consideration of whether California will embrace the idea of boarding a train. According to Richard White, a Stanford historian who’s studied America’s 19th-Century rail experience, the answer is a decided “no”.

As White sees it:

  1. California high-speed rail oversells its promise of paying off its costs and reducing the state’s carbon “footprint”;
  2. There’s no evidence that Californians will choose trains over cars;
  3. California is heading down the same path as China and its messy experiment with bringing high-speed rail to a sprawling landscape.

Could California stop the project and restore a little sanity to its fiscal outlook? Unfortunately, that train’s already left the station.

(photo credit: Mike Welfl)