Diversions risk undermining high-speed rail

The plan is a visionary one: a high-speed train running from San Francisco to Los Angeles, shortening the journey to two hours and 40 minutes of travel. This system, emulating the success of similar high-speed trains in Europe and Japan, is meant to make the commute between the two major Californian cities drastically easier — much easier than the daunting drive, much faster than the current rail options and much cheaper than flying.

The plan would usher a drastic shift in the way Northern and Southern California interact. In terms of business, the impact on transportation time and the growth of towns on the proposed route could be huge. A project of this magnitude would create thousands of jobs.

Max Rubin | Daily Trojan

But there lies the main challenge for the accomplishment of this ambitious goal: time.

Recent proposed changes might make time an even bigger hurdle than before.

California has set aside $98.5 billion for the system, a gargantuan, state-of-the-art set of tracks running up and down the state. The estimated completion date is around 2025. That leaves around 13 years for economic fluctuation, alternate projects and distraction to prevent the project from coming together as it was initially intended.

The state has already dedicated $9 billion to the program; the idea was to gradually use $2.7 billion over the next few years on a 130-mile segment in the Central Valley.

Even in the early stages of the process, diversions are already becoming a concern.

On Feb. 19, the Los Angeles Times reported that various transportation agencies have proposed to draw an additional $4 billion from that fund to begin upgrading the pre-existing rail systems in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The agencies want to adjust the rails to make them compatible with high-speed trains and older trains, such as Metrolink and Amtrak.

Proponents of this system make a strong argument. By developing these urban bookends for the eventual system, the agencies would assure improvements coming out of the funds that have already been allotted, in case the overall plan succumbs to the many pitfalls it could encounter along the way.

Proponents need to be wary of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Though it is in the interest of securing a positive result, this shift creates the kind of distraction that could ultimately cause a project like this to fall apart. The project could undermine itself if it sets a precedent of diverting from the original plan for short-term benefits.

Undergoing a long-term project like this one is risky. Beyond the inevitable chaos that such an extended project will have to endure, the sheer amount of money involved makes people nervous.

No one wants to be held responsible for the high-speed rail to nowhere; no one wants to explain where billions of dollars went in a press conference. Circumstances are stacked against something of this magnitude, and one would imagine the politicians involved are wary of trusting it blindly.

Yet this project has the potential to be great for the state of California, and it should be given a real chance to succeed. It remains to be seen if hedging against potential failure will become a trend — and the proponents of these urban bookends are risking just that.


Daniel Grzywacz is a sophomore majoring in neuroscience and anthropology. His column “72 Degrees and Shaking” runs Wednesdays.


2 replies
  1. Christopher Ganiere
    Christopher Ganiere says:

    “Yet this project has the potential to be great for the state of California, and it should be given a real chance to succeed.”

    There is no empirical data to show that High Speed Rail is a possibility in California without MASSIVE subsidies from tax payers.

    1) We have a very mobile population – more than one million people left CA in the past 10 years.
    2) Our most dense cities are all in the Bay Area – this is why BART works
    3) Of all the High Speed Rail projects world wide, only two are financially sustainable – France (many walled cities = dense population centers) & Japan (an island = dense population centers)
    4) Cost of land – SF & LA have VERY high land costs – the costs of a system will balloon as the taxpayers have to reimburse people for their land
    5) Environmental concerns – Noise pollution, massive carbon expenditures to make track and train cars
    6) Cost of running the system – electrical power to energize the tracks, union wages for operators, & pensions for workers
    7) Cost of money to build the system – money is cheap now, but we will roll over bonds again and again to pay for a non-profit money sink
    8) Only the rich will benefit – even with infusions of cash from tax payers the cost of each ticket will be near to the cost of taking an airplane
    9) Terrorist target – we will need airport-like security for the entire length of the track to keep terrorists from attacking

    What should we do?
    1) Cut our losses. Pay the dreamers that thought up the idea and shelf it to sell to a private company to develop.
    2) Build a virtual high speed rail. Make a new movie every year and sell it to airlines to show during flights to the Bay Area and back.

  2. Frank Papasavas
    Frank Papasavas says:

    First of all, California does not have $98,000,500,000 dollars to spend. It is a typical accounting trick used by politicians, in particular Jerry Brown. His proposal calls for carbon credits to fund the project. There is no real money. The state of California is fundamentally broke, not to mention the United States.

    Amtrak has never made a dime in it’s history. For every passenger it carries, it looses roughly $47.00. All subsidized by the tax payer. Joe Biden likes it, because he uses it.

    what percentage of passengers does HSR expect to garner from air transportation, 50% 70%? How will that effect our air transportation system? HSR will be subsidized for ever, with tax payer money. It will never be able to stand on it’s own. We are not Tokyo, how many people are actually going to use this system, to travel between San Fransisco and LA/San Diego,.as opposed to air travel.

    The politicians in Sacramento already lied about the amounts of money involved, what makes anyone think the lies will not continue.

    Safety is another issue. I certainly hope it never happens, but it seems inevitable that a collision between the HSR and a vehicle or other object will occur eventually. What then?

    Why do the politicians in Sacramento and elsewhere insist on wanting to turn the US into a European style country.

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