Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Public continues to question the state HSR project

Many Californians are not happy with how the state is planning to improve our rail transportation infrastructure. A poll put together by the USC Dornsife and the Los Angeles Times found that 52% of respondents wish to stop the first phase of the $68-billion California High Speed Rail Authority bullet train project segment that would run from Los Angeles to the Bay Area. The same poll found that since voters approved funding in 2008, 70% of respondents would like the project put on the ballot again. Concerns are tied to the hard economic times: If citizens have to cut on expenses, so should the government. The train would run at 220 mph and begin transporting passengers in 2028.

There are other good reasons why concerned citizens are questioning the project. Here are some facts.

As mentioned, the CHSRA business plan estimates a $68 billion price tag for the Phase 1 project, connecting San Francisco with Los Angeles via the Central Valley and Palmdale regions. The agency has calculated the travel distance to be 432 miles which includes the Palmdale segment. Do the math and that adds up to an astounding $157 million per mile. The public has every right to question the inflated costs.

According to a Reuters blog post, the LGV Sud-Est bullet train which links Paris to Lyon was completed in seven years in 1983 and cost $5 billion in today’s U.S. dollars. The distance is 254 miles which adds up to about $20 million per mile. The Shinkansen high speed rail system in Japan was completed in six years for $20 billion in 2010 dollars. The per-mile cost added up to $63 million, a bit on the high side which earned the line some bitter criticism. China's Wuhan-Guangzhou line cost $17 billion, or $28 million per mile. These are facts that must be put into the high speed rail debate. To be fair, the Chunnel HSR system under the English Channel linking England to France cost nearly US $500 million per mile in today's currency and 80% over budget. Tunnel boring remains expensive and serious problems like fires, illegal immigrants and asylum seekers obstructed the Chunnel's construction progress.

According to the post, trivial regulatory bureaucracy, NIMBY opposition lawsuits filed in the name of protecting the environment, and union pandering have combined to slap U.S. high speed rail proposals nationwide including California's high speed transportation infrastructure project with price tags that are possibly five to seven times inflated than compared to other industrialized countries.

If state and federal officials can solve these bureaucratic problems, stop pandering to union leaders, truly close CEQA loopholes to reduce the per-mile cost to at least match the Shinkansen system of $63 million per mile, getting high speed transportation infrastructure built would be a reality without the questionable price tag opposed by concerned Californians. Under cost effective policies, the approved state start-up money combined with the awarded federal funds totaling $12.7 billion would allow for more than 200 miles of high speed rail infrastructure, even through the hilly terrains.

Retrofitting conventional steel-wheel rail lines with linear synchronous motors, most likely mounted to the railroad ties between the rails, would cut down the cost of traversing through steep graded areas and provide an affordable alternative to tunneling. 200 miles of rail lines would be more than enough to close the LA-to-Bakersfield rail gap through the Newhall Pass and possibly link the Metrolink Perris Valley Line rail corridor to the LOSSAN rail corridor near La Jolla via Temecula and Escondido. That would better entice the private sector to finish the remainder of the project for a statewide high speed rail system done right.

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