America’s First Bullet Train

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 7 2015 @ 4:05pm

California broke ground on it yesterday. Scott Shackford is against the project, which is estimated to cost $68 billion:

The state only has $12 billion on hand for the project and is planning for another $8 billion. The rest is absolutely nowhere to be found. California got $3 billion from the Obama administration as part of the stimulus package, but it’s pretty safe to say they’re not going to see another cent from the federal government for at least the next two years. There is no sign of any private investment coming. The California High Speed Rail Authority is taking the “If you build it, they will come” mantra as a permanent motto. Its chairman, Dan Richard, is hoping they can raise money from selling advertisement and real estate development rights along the route or that the feds will chip in again later.

Katrina Trinko raises other objections:

Backers say the train will be able to make the trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles in under 2 hours, 40 minutes. However, according to a 2013 Reason Foundation study, it’s likely the trip will ultimately take around 4 hours (and sometimes closer to 5 hours) for various reasons (for example, the high-speed train will share tracks with slower trains). To put that into context, consider this:

a flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles is about 1 hour, 15 minutes. Driving, if there isn’t traffic, takes a little under six hours—more time than the train would take, it’s true, but you also have a vehicle at the end of your trip.

Update from a reader:

Sure, a flight between LAX and SFO might take 1 1/4 or 1 1/2 hours, but that does not take into account the hours required for checking in, going thru security, boarding early, and possibly baggage claim at destination, to say nothing of transit from the airport to the city proper.

Eric Holthaus believes that “it’s probably better to just focus on improving the transportation systems we already have, rather than creating a whole new one from scratch”:

Given the incredible pressure that global warming is inflicting, we can’t waste precious resources on high-speed rail. It’s impractical to hope that truly high-speed rail—the kind that will compete with air travel—will arrive in time to do much good.

Instead, limited public transportation funds should be prioritized for climate-friendly projects that will pay off more than high-speed rail in the same time frame. Some options for politicians: 1) Expand the use of upscale electric buses, 2) support self-driving vehicle technology, and 3) regulate airline emissions.

Fallows, on the other hand, supports the project:

1) America is direly short on infrastructure; the financial and political resistance to remedying that is powerful (for reason Mancur Olson once laid out) and usually prevails. China is biased toward wastefully building infrastructure it doesn’t need. The U.S. is biased the opposite way. So when there’s is a real chance to build something valuable in America, I start out in favor of it.

2) The counties of the Central Valley of California, where the first stages of the construction will begin, are not just the poorest part of a rich state but also, taken on their own, would constitute the poorest state in the entire country. Of the five poorest metro areas in the United States, three are there. Most dynamic analyses of the effects of the rail project indicate that it would bring new jobs to a region that most needs them, while chewing up less farmland than normal sprawl and freeway expansion would destroy. Which leads to …

3) The state’s population is growing, and so is the demand for intra-state travel. Any other way of getting California’s 30+ million people from north to south, via cars on new (or more crowded) freeways or planes to new (or more crowded) airports, will be more destructive of the state’s finances, its farmland, and its environment than a rail system.