Friday, July 22, 2011

A Plan to Save High Speed Rail Shows Us How Troubled the Project Really Is

After a while, it gets tiring to keep reiterating the problems with California's high speed rail project. The incompetent management of the state's High Speed Rail Authority. The "train to nowhere". The lack of a plan for actually operating the line. The problematic (over)estimates of demand for the line's services. The fact that the project is billions short on the funds needed to complete it. The various legal challenges to construction of certain pieces of the project. And so on. But as long as people keep trying to come up with plans to salvage this catastrophe of a project, we suppose we'll have to keep doing so. The latest such plan comes to us from transportation consultant Michael Setty.

The bill for this train will arrive long before the train itself does.
According to California Watch, Setty has proposed a dramatic overhaul of the plan that, he claims, will avoid many of the problems bogging down the current project. While Setty's proposal is in desperate need of an executive summary, his idea is to cut the project's cost down to $20 billion (?!) by making greater use of existing rail lines. In order to defuse the resistance to the project from farmers and homeowners in the Central Valley, and to lower the costs of acquiring land, Setty would run the main line down the middle of the 5, much further west than currently called for. The revised line would connect Bakersfield to Los Angeles via the Grapevine. And rather than build the controversial elevated tracks down the San Francisco Peninsula, Setty proposes building the line along the 580 corridor through the Altamont Pass. More generally, Setty would have high speed rail linked more closely with existing bus and local rail service, with fast trains handling longer inter-city trips.

We'll applaud Setty for considering alternatives to the awful current plan, but his idea, ultimately, isn't much more workable than HRSA's. For one thing, the idea of bypassing the Antelope Valley is complicated by Palmdale's lawsuit against HRSA, which is intended to prevent HRSA from skirting the town. Second, the proposal neglects to mention that its high-speed connection between Sacramento and the area around SFO via the Dumbarton corridor will require building another bridge across the San Francisco Bay. Most importantly, however, the proposal includes no cost breakdown, so it's not clear whether that $20 billion figure includes all the items Setty brings up. The upgrades and expansions to existing lines would doubtless be incredibly expensive, and would create land use issues of their own. And if these costs aren't counted in the $20 billion, it's fair to ask whether it makes sense to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on trains that won't directly connect the state's major urban areas.

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