Did the federal government make the right call giving money to California high-speed rail projects?

The Biden administration announced recently that it would give $6 billion to two high-speed rail projects in California.

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While only a fraction of total costs, it was seen by some transportation advocates as a win for California because it is getting a big portion of infrastructure funds largely because it already had two high-speed projects started.

Critics argue the California high-speed rail project, from L.A. to San Francisco (and eventually extended to San Diego), has gone too far over budget and it is time to cut losses and end it.

The L.A. to Las Vegas rail project is seen as more politically favorable because it is private-public partnership. Yet $3 billion from taxpayers puts the project under more scrutiny. Skeptics have questioned if a rail line to Las Vegas is necessary when travelers could just fly or drive. Also, current plans for the Brightline rail have it starting in Rancho Cucamonga, which will likely mean a long commute (by car, Metrolink rail or bus) just to get on it.

Proponents say the U.S. is behind on high-speed rail, which they say will ease traffic construction and reduce pollution.

Q: Did the federal government make the right call giving money to California high-speed rail projects?

Jamie Moraga, Franklin Revere

NO: Stop putting good money after bad. The federal government is subsidizing these projects that even with this additional funding, will not be enough to finish them. More funding will be required that California can’t currently sustain and continues to be a waste of taxpayer money. Cost overruns, poor planning, and poor decision making have unfortunately plagued the rail projects from the start.

David Ely, San Diego State University

NO: The rail project connecting the Bay area to Southern California does not have a high probability of ever being completed. Even completing the Central Valley section will be challenging. The $3 billion going toward this project could be better spent elsewhere. The case for supporting the Brightline West project is stronger given the lower construction barriers and the involvement of a private partner who has demonstrated success in a high-speed rail project in Florida.

Caroline Freund, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy

YES: High-speed rail would yield immense economic and environmental benefits. The U.S., with no fully functional high-speed rail service, lags far behind Asia and Europe, where governments have strategically invested in thousands of miles of tracks. Limited public investment and overregulation lead to delays and high costs in the U.S. Buy American laws prevent the use of low-cost imported materials further boosting costs. This is just a start; more ambition and investment are needed.

Kelly Cunningham, San Diego Institute for Economic Research

NO: In 15 years since the HSR was approved, no rail lines or project conditions have been completed. Projected costs are more than quintupled so far and at current pace will not likely be completed this century. Final costs for the nation’s “biggest boondoggle in history” are impossible to realistically project. Better to put more money into lower-cost projects linking disparate parts of the existing state rail network than sinking more into a bottomless money pit.

Lynn Reaser, economist

NO: Both physical and monetary constraints will doom the two projects. The Brightline project serving the Las Vegas market would make sense if it extended to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles rather than just Rancho Cucamonga. The budget shortfall for the California project will still be about $78 billion. Businesses, residents, and utilities would need to be moved, making the high-speed train only distant vision for the entire San Francisco to Anaheim route.

Phil Blair, Manpower

YES: Many outlandish projects need government support to get off the ground. The differentiating factor here is a private company sees potential in the route. They have experience and will build the line and manage it. These are not the government’s strengths.

Gary London, London Moeder Advisors

NO: It is time to reevaluate the concept of high speed rail in California. I do not see the social utility of an L.A. to Vegas line: it is not about commuting or economic expansion. The L.A. to San Francisco line is fraught with intractable complications. And the central California route is ridiculous. I like fast trains, but it may be an outdated approach. High tech solutions, involving autonomous, personal vehicles just might make more sense.

Alan Gin, University of San Diego

NO: That’s not to say that high-speed rail isn’t important. Its benefits include reduced congestion, reduced pollution, and reduced dependence on foreign oil. But the U.S. just can’t seem to build rail systems anymore. Cost overruns lead to projects going way over budget, and there are often protracted battles over routing. For California in particular, there is too much urban sprawl, which reduces the density necessary to support rail systems.

Bob Rauch, R.A. Rauch & Associates

NO: The “train to nowhere” (no offense intended to residents of Merced and Bakersfield) is projected to cost more than $20 billion — several billion dollars more than a previous projection made in 2019 and is likely to grow more expensive. It will duplicate an Amtrak route and go nowhere in helping the L.A. to San Francisco route, as promised by Gov. Newsom. Give back to taxpayers the $4 billion to $5 billion of remaining funds from the original $9 billion bond that was approved.

James Hamilton, UC San Diego

YES and NO: Half the $6 billion is well spent, the other half not. The dream of a high-speed rail connecting L.A. to San Francisco is never going to happen, and any new federal contribution to that is throwing good money after bad. By contrast, connecting L.A. to Las Vegas could make economic sense, as evidenced by the substantial commitment of private investors. Building on public-private partnerships is a promising way to temper politician’s dreams with the reality of economic costs and benefits.

Austin Neudecker, Weave Growth

NO: I remain baffled by the exponential cost inflation associated with infrastructure projects. That money could fly more than 60 million people to Vegas without the drive to San Bernardino. I am also uncomfortable with tax dollars substantially subsidizing a private venture. If we believe public, environmentally-friendly transit is a priority, we should consider options that make these projects more economically viable. It may be time to consider new solutions like automated e-buses that don’t require substantial infrastructure.

Chris Van Gorder, Scripps Health

NO: Unless the projects are funded by federal resources, and the governor and legislature can commit to doing a better job of staying within budget and on schedule, I can’t support them. While I do believe there is a need to improve transportation in the state, I think there are higher needs and priorities for funding with state resources right now, especially given that California is looking at record budget deficits.

Click here to read that the full article in the SD Union Tribune

Comments

  1. Years down the road we will be reading the same story regarding the “Train to nowhere” only the names will change.

  2. The alignment of the HSR to serve as a link between LA and SF is rediculous to begin with, LA to SF via Modesto? How can a HSR serve those communities along HWY 99? The route should have followed I5 to truly serve the link originally proposed. It is a dumb loser after the politicians meddled with the route.

  3. Someone’s raking in bucks. The rest of us ripped off.
    Where’s the GoP to shut this crap down?

  4. Senile, Predatory, Incompetent and Corrupt Biden has just blown $6 billion of other people’s money on projects that will never succeed as currently envisioned. The private company, Brightline, building the Las Vegas to Rancho Cucamonga choo-choo needed 25% of the total cost (that we know of now) from federal taxpayers. So much for “free enterprise” and its ability to manage better than Amtrak or some other government albatross. Even if this line somehow was extended to Union Station (elevated track over the 210, 10 or 60 freeways?), there is inadequate parking available, and people would need to transit from all over greater L.A. into congested downtown L.A.

    As for the L.A. to S.F. boondoggle, cost estimates of up to $200 billion have been floated when federal taxpayers gave just $3 billion the other day. Almost a rounding error in the costing for this failed project. Those who live in Bakersfield or Merced don’t particularly seek either destination for business or leisure. Laying new track in metro S.F. or in metro L.A. would be expensive and well-nigh impossible short of expensive elevated track over existing freeway rights-of-way.

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