The Benefits versus the Costs of California High Speed Rail

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

It is without question that California's high speed rail project is one of the most divisive infrastructure projects around. The Transit Coalition and proponents note the technology has already been proven beyond a reasonable doubt to move high volumes of people between dense regions. That is a fact. On the other front, opponents correctly argue that precious public tax money must not be wasted or overspent. That seams to be the two main thesis points throughout this debate.

Let's look at the technology.

I'll keep this short and sweet. Successful examples of high-speed rail can be found all over Asia and Europe. The real value of HSR is how such projects anchor deep connections between transportation hubs, cultural attractions, cities and jobs.

Concept: Imagine a 1 hour commuter train ride from Murrieta to Irvine...
Note: Concept only. Not officially proposed.
If the California HSR system can reproduce the German style that binds the state together, there will be huge economic and cultural benefits. That is why a rail tunnel between the high desert and Los Angeles would be a desirable transportation corridor. Yes, the geo-technical studies need to be fact-based and impartial but if found feasible, the benefit of directly connecting LA to Palmdale via a 30 minute train ride would be a clear asset. The same can be said for the Irvine-Corona Expressway rail tunnel linking Dos Lagos to Irvine with a 15 minute high speed train ride. How about an LA-to-San Diego train route via the Inland Empire with branches to Las Vegas and Phoenix? Both commuter and inter-city demands for each route would be enormous and should call for private investments.

However, for California HSR, the debate has been centered around public costs, funding and construction deadlines, rather than benefits.

The California High Speed Rail Authority has responded to legislators and members of Congress by releasing a 2013 report showing an estimated cost increase for building the initial segment of HSR. This seems to be a case of the media not understanding the subject and the political opposition sensationalizing. While these numbers are preliminary and still in development, the initial HSR contracts have come in below budget. Some members of the media are taking advantage of all the negative press including editorial positions from the LA News Group of papers and the Press Enterprise.

To be fair, excessive public spending and government waste in general is a serious concern and must not be ignored. Mustering additional public funds from taxes for HSR will be difficult and slow; however the initial voter-approved seed money in the form of bonds in order to initiate the master-plan was a necessary step.

That is why the state needs to allow the private sector to get more actively involved and invest money into the rails and ensure any unnecessary red-tape politics that prevents such investments are reformed. In addition, tax breaks would further incentivize investments. CA HSR has received some interest from the marketplace but much more has to be done. Both the Burbank-to-Palmdale and Dos Lagos-to-Irvine tunnels should have more than enough market demand to call for private sector investments with the latter already found to be feasible but requiring private funds.

Capitalism and competition between service providers drives the market economy and innovation in the United States. Any trivial regulatory rules that obstructs entrepreneurs from improving our inter-city mass transit infrastructure must be reformed. If the state uses the HSR seed money toward a starting segment and gets the remainder of the master plan shovel-ready and cleared, more investors would be inclined to pay for construction.

Yes, there has to be efficient government oversight on the marketplace to ensure safety and to prevent abuse and crony behavior. But I'm pretty sure that several HSR opponents desire a better market economy and would support reforms to statewide regulatory code.

So why can't we find some common ground and allow investors to do the same with moving people from here-to-there quickly via an already proven high speed rail technology?