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Transportation Insiders

High-Speed Rail Can’t Get a Break

A train enthusiast enjoys the steam locomotive on display at the Amtrak National Train Day at Union Station on May 11, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Amtrak

photo of Fawn Johnson
February 3, 2014

Even in train-happy California, high-speed rail is having a tough go of it. Last week, the state's Supreme Court ordered a federal appeals court to review a Sacramento judge's ruling that the state cannot go forward with its plan to sell $8.6 billion in voter-approved bonds for a 520-mile bullet train linking the northern and southern parts of the state. The total cost of the project is $68 billion.

Gov. Jerry Brown said the inability to move forward, courtesy of the judicial system, "cripples the government's ability to function." The legal challenges to the project could cause indefinite delays.

At issue is the state's ability to prove that it can fully finance the first section of the rail line, which the law says it must do before it can begin selling bonds. Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny ruled last year that the state had failed to comply with that requirement. In November, it was still $25 billion short of its goal.

 

The cost-benefit analysis that goes into high-speed rail has always been a stumbling block for bullet trains. It's really expensive to get them going, and the economic benefits are hard to gauge because they come way down the line.

It was the long-term nature of the investment that got the Obama administration's high-speed rail initiative in trouble with Congress. Most of the $8 billion allotted for high-speed rail in the economic stimulus package went to existing routes or project planning. Then congressional appropriators refused Obama's $53 billion request for a 25-year high-speed rail project. After that the effort pretty much died.

Here's a great example of this problem. This recent write-up of a report from the Federal Railroad Administration shows that travelers get small tangible benefits from huge investments in high-speed rail throughout New York State. Doing nothing gives New Yorkers a nine-hour trip from New York City to Niagara Falls, according to the analysis. Spending $5 to $6 billion would decrease the trip time to seven-and-a-half hours. Another $8 billion reduces the travel time to six hours.

It's easy to see how budget hawks and taxpayers might be skeptical that a few hours is worth $5 to $8 billion.

For our insiders: What is the future of high-speed rail? Why is the investment such a difficult sell for policymakers? What would it take to jump-start high-speed rail in any area in the country? Are the upstart investments the biggest impediment to a serious high-speed rail network? What else are we missing? Is "regular" passenger rail an appropriate alternative?

(Note: This blog is a moderated discussion on transportation issues. Comments are approved on a case-by-case basis. Contact me if you want to be a regular contributor.)

From the Transportation Insiders

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