The High Speed Rail Confusion Continues

If high speed rail opponents fear government waste, why not support the growth of the technology through the private sector?

Shinkansen N700 & 500 (8086228483)

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Opponents of California High Speed Rail have had their day after two state lawmakers submitted language for a ballot measure that would ask California voters to divert about $8 billion in bond money from the state’s high-speed rail project to develop water infrastructure.

Shortly after the move made the headlines, The Press Enterprise published another anti-HSR editorial stating:

From its inception, we have criticized the bullet train boondoggle, which passed with just 53 percent of votes. For one thing, there’s no way Congress, now controlled by Republicans, will appropriate any more money, as required by the initiative.

But I believe there's a lot of confusion stemming from this divisive debate, and we need to find some common ground before California loses out in an opportunity to reshape intercity travel for the better.

First off, I believe this Congress does support improving the market economy which is one of the top concerns of U.S. citizens according to the major polls, the other being terrorism. When it comes to the marketplace running the show in other sectors, the PE generally agrees and I strongly think the majority of Congress will vote for policies that would permit free market growth. The same day, the newspaper editorialized this and printed the memo directly above the anti-HSR piece:

Competition is a good thing, Andrew Belknap of Management Partners reminded the San Bernardino City Council on Monday, as the city approved outsourcing refuse services. With a 6-1 vote, the city moved forward with contracting out solid waste management, street sweeping and right-of-way clean-up to a private company, Burrtec.

As the city reported in May in its proposed bankruptcy recovery plan, most municipalities deal with such functions through the private sector. “Given the expertise developed in multiple jurisdictions and by these waste companies … it is likely that contracting these services to a private company will result in lower costs to provide the service and increased franchise fees to the General Fund,” reported the city.

From the taxpayers’ perspective, there was never a good reason not to hand over the reins to the private sector. If a service can be provided at a lower cost, without compromising quality, it makes plenty of sense to go with that option. Indeed, for refuse services, the city enjoyed several competing options: Burrtec, Athens, CR&R Industries and Republic Industries responded to a request for proposals.

What about the private sector's roll in the so-called "bullet train boondoggle"? Enter in the proposed XpressWest HSR system.

Last week, the Nevada High-Speed Rail Authority unanimously selected XpressWest as the Silver State's franchisee for constructing a high-speed rail system that connects Las Vegas with Southern California. Four other firms that submitted applications were not selected but offered interesting alternative high speed transit concepts.

XpressWest officials told the Las Vegas Sun that construction of the privately funded route could start as early as fall 2016 which has already attracted outside investments. The finished project aims to connect Las Vegas to Los Angeles. The first phase links Victorville to Vegas, projected to cost about $8 billion. At about 190 miles, that adds up to only $42 million per mile of bullet train infrastructure. To compare, the CHSRA Business Plan for Phase I calls for a $68.4 billion budget at 520 miles, equalling $132 million per mile. Both the City of San Bernardino's and the PE editorial board's argument of having the private sector operate services has a general valid point. The question I have is why did the PE not mention private investments in the anti-HSR piece as an alternative? The technology has long been proven beyond a reasonable doubt to improve high speed intercity travel options in Europe and Asia, and we have entrepreneurs interested in investing private capital into high speed rail within the state. So, why throw out the baby with the bathwater?

Phase II of XpressWest will link Victorville to Palmdale. Phase III calls for a direct connection to LA using CAHSR infrastructure which is why the state should use cash from the approved seed money to complete the geo-technical studies for the Burbank-to-Palmdale HSR tunnel and get it shovel-ready if feasible. Investors like XpressWest would pay for engineering and construction at the market rate. Longer-range proposals call for expansions east to Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Denver. With CHSRA infrastructure, future phases could be extended north to San Francisco and south to San Diego via the Inland Empire. That could include a branch for the Irvine-Corona Expressway tunnel corridor. Hence, the remainder of the CHSRA master plan could be funded in a conservative way through the market economy while the state gets the system shovel-ready.

Can you see the benefits of developing the bullet train and understand why we want high speed rail done right? While getting additional public tax or government bond money into the statewide master plan seems unlikely as the PE correctly points, California should have more than enough resources to spend the approved seed money wisely so that investors like XpressWest can pay into and develop the rest of the system and beyond and offer competitive top-tier services at lower fares.

The state government really needs to stop overspending and displacing our transportation funds. You can see why the people are fed up with this type of behavior and are erroneously calling for the $8 billion in HSR seed money to be re-purposed.

Yes, I do agree that California is in a serious drought and policy reforms need to be made at the state level to resolve that.

But if the state draws more private investments into the bullet train and grows the market economy through regulatory reform that would increase marketplace non-government jobs, maybe all this HSR confusion will be rectified. Opponents may then have a different tune and not want to throw out the resources needed to expand the proven rail technology and marketplace jobs with the government waste. The state and private sector could then afford to expand the infrastructure that is necessary to better move people while improving the harvesting technology of rain water and snow runoff simultaneously.

So let's stop trying to derail the bullet train with the Brown Boondoggle. High speed rail can offer tremendous benefits and opportunities. Both We the People of the State of California and the American marketplace should seize that opportunity.