The Los Angeles Times editorial board almost got the big picture on the state's high-speed rail plan this week. The editors decried the sadly predictable results of sinking vast amounts of money into government boondoggles, with consequences including political decisions on routing and location, spiraling costs, and bad management.
The conclusion reached by the editors? Let's have a different government agency try running it instead.
So close — and yet so far.
California's high-speed rail project has lots of problems, but its most basic is purpose. The project proposes to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco with an express train that will take two hours and 40 minutes from beginning to end. That sounds good in comparison to the drive, which is approximately six-and-a-half hours, when there is no traffic, or the existing Amtrak service, which takes almost 10 hours to go from Union Station to Moscone Center — and uses two buses.
In contrast, passengers have plenty of choices for direct transportation between the two major metropolitan areas via commercial airlines. Not only does the airline ticket price on Travelocity come in at only a little more than subsidized Amtrak fares for a round trip ($138 as compared to $112), it takes less than half of the time to travel that the proposed "high-speed" rail project does — 75 minutes as opposed to 160 minutes. Consumers can save an average of $20 on fares by booking a flight from less-used Long Beach Airport (adding only 5 minutes to the length of the flight), and still have a choice between three different airlines for nonstop service.
With these choices and convenience, why bother going ground at all?
Purpose isn't the only problem with high-speed rail. Thanks to rules attached to federal subsidies in President Obama's stimulus package, California has to break ground on the project by next year. That has forced the state to focus much of its $3.5 billion on an effort to connect the bustling metropolises of… Borden and Corcoran. The latter is a town of fewer than 25,000 people located 174 miles north of Los Angeles, while Borden, 167 miles south of San Francisco, is an unincorporated area that doesn’t even have a population listing. Its county, Madera, boasts a population of 148,000, making it 33rd out of 58 counties in California in population.
Taxpayers throughout the country therefore paid more than $3 billion to connect fewer than 175,000 people by rail. That may not be a "train to nowhere," as the Times' editors put it, but it's pretty darned close. Moreover, thanks to California's own budget meltdowns, the state won’t allow any bond issues for rail projects that don't generate enough revenue to pay for themselves — and with the fabulous destinations of Borden and Corcoran as end points, the state won’t sell enough tickets to have the engines pulling out of the station.
We could talk about some of the other strange decisions by the state on the rail line, such as diverting from its express path to wander around Bakersfield and Lancaster, which added $1 billion dollars to the cost of the project, but the picture is clear. High-speed rail, run by government as it must be, spends a lot of money to go where almost no one wants to go. Decisions get made on the basis of political expediency rather than efficient use of capital, as no one gets rewarded for the latter and everyone is afraid to buck the former. All of this takes place in the service of a train system that takes more than twice as long to transport passengers by the most optimistic calculations, along a line that roughly follows the San Andreas Fault.
Does the Times conclude that California should dump its high-speed rail project in the face of all this failure? Not at all. The paper's editorial states that the only logical solution is to start over from scratch and take the project away from the High Speed Rail Authority, presumably by creating another agency with a different name but the same mission, and with the exact same political pressures.
Why? Because the editors insist that the federal and state governments need to be providing "cleaner, safer, and cheaper competition to airlines and reducing reliance on gas-guzzling automobiles." First, "cheaper" assumes that the ticket cost represents the total cost. It doesn't. A recent study at the Heritage Foundation shows that the federal subsidies for Amtrak now are over $237 per every 1,000 passenger miles, while commercial airline fares get $4.23 of subsidies for the same measure. A ticket may be cheaper at the window for high-speed rail, but it's going to cost taxpayers a bundle.
Besides, why should we want the federal government to compete with airlines and force them out of business? Airlines provide real competition and deliver superior service. It's also hard to make an argument for environmentalism when the state is about to chew up hundreds of miles of land in order to install high-speed rail, and then power the trains with electricity that California already has to buy from out-of-state producers that rely on fossil fuels. It wasn't that long ago that Californians had to endure rolling blackouts because of electricity shortages, and the state will have to scrounge for every kilowatt-hour to push the trains between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
There are no good reasons to build this high-speed rail system, except for pork-barrel politics that benefit the politicians while soaking the taxpayers. The real lesson from California’s derailment is that government should stay out of the transportation business. One could even see that clearly from Borden… if one could find it.