7 ways James Fallows is wrong about the CA bullet train

July 11, 2014 - By Chris Reed

fallowsWriting on The Atlantic’s website, the much-respected journalist/intellectual James Fallows — a Redlands native who knows California better than nearly all other national pundits — has come out as a big fan of the state’s bullet-train project. He promises to return frequently to the project in coming months and explain all the ways that it is wonderful.

In his first installment, his focus is on how much better life is in places with fast, convenient trains and how big infrastructure projects can tranform regions for the better. Then he cites studies which talk about this specific project’s benefits in helping local economies and reducing pollution.

The problem is that Fallows is describing California’s high-speed rail project in a vacuum. When someone just hears the concept, of course they are likely to think it sounds cool.

But the California project is not proceeding in a vacuum. It is unfolding under specific parameters governed by state law and under the specific circumstances we’ve seen in California since 2008, when state voters approved Proposition 1A and $9.95 billion in bond seed money for the train. When you look at the pet project of the California High-Speed Rail Authority with these factors in mind, it’s obvious that Fallows, as smart as he may be, is clueless on the bullet train.

Beyond the happy talk: What reality looks like

Here are seven ways that is the case.

1. All the wonderful things the train allegedly does don’t matter if it can’t be paid for. There is at most $13 billion in state and federal funding for a project that has a price tag of $68 billion (a price tag that no one really believes is accurate). There is no prospect for further federal funding in an era in which discretionary domestic spending is being squeezed as never before. State funding of $250 million a year from fees from California’s nascent cap-and-trade pollution-rights market begins this budget cycle. But that is a pittance, and if they’re off the record, no state lawmaker will admit to wanting taxpayers to foot the entire bill. So why can’t the private sector come to the rescue? Because …

2. All the wonderful things the train allegedly does don’t matter if it can’t be built legally. No private sector investors have emerged despite years of promises from the administrations of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown because Prop 1A included a provision that there could be no operating subsidies, whether the rail system was run by the state government or a private operator. No investor wants to partner with a suspect entity like the state of California without revenue or ridership guarantees that are tantamount to promises of subsidies if the project doesn’t meet expectations.

The bullet train isn’t just susceptible to the NIMBYism that routinely hobbles big projects. The only lawyers who believe the state’s proposal is legal under the terms of Prop 1A work for the rail authority or for political entities that support the project. It’s already been blocked by a Sacramento Superior Court judge on the grounds that it has inadequate financing and insufficient environmental reviews to begin construction of its initial $31 billion, 300-mile link. That’s because of yet another Prop 1A safeguard: the requirement that construction couldn’t begin unless there is all necessary money in hand and completed environmental reviews for an entire rail segment that could be economically viable even if the statewide system were never completed.

high-speed-rail-map-3203. What the state of California wants to do isn’t even a high-speed rail project under the definition established in state law. Fallows somehow has missed the harsh critique of former state Sen. Quentin Kopp, the father of the bullet train idea in California, who opposes Brown’s plan to build a really fast train from San Jose to the northern edges of the Los Angeles exurbs. Kopp says — correctly — that Prop 1A promised a two-hour, 40-minute trip from downtown San Francisco to downtown L.A. That’s not in the realm of even theoretical possibility if riders have to spend an hour getting from San Francisco to San Jose and then an hour getting from northern L.A. County to downtown L.A. on regular trains.

Public, lawmakers have cooled to project

Now it’s time for four more reasons that are a little more subjective but that Fallows still has no effective way to counter:

4. The Fallows case for the bullet train builds on information he was provided by the state and its paid consultants. Unless he is the most naive man in the world, he should be hugely suspicious of information provided by those pushing the project. Why? Because here is the short list of some of the many important things they have deceived the public and the media about since 2008:

The project’s cost (used to be $33 billion, then $98 billion, now allegedly $68 billion); annual ridership forecasts (initially an insane 117 million people, or three times as many riders as Amtrak, which operates in 46 states); jobs created; pollution reduction; and cost of fares.

5. The public no longer backs the project. It won narrowly in 2008. Now polls show nearly two-thirds of voters are opposed. Costly projects surrounded by controversy and scandal — and lacking funding — need public support if they are to be completed.

6. Many Democrats in the state Legislature have lost faith. The incoming Senate president, Kevin De Leon of Los Angeles, even said it was stupid to begin the project in the Central Valley instead of the state’s most populated regions. And the most dominant special interests in Sacramento are public employee unions, not the building-trades unions which love the bullet train. These unions are extremely wary of another big mouth at the state trough. An enormously expensive bailout of the state teachers pension system has just gotten under way; a similar bailout of a program for retiree health care for state employees is still badly needed; and temporary income-tax and sales-tax hikes are expiring in coming years. These factors add up to a grim coming era in which there will be a perpetual dog-eat-dog fight for every dollar in the Legislature. These are the fights that the teacher unions in particular win year after year. There is no reason to think teacher unions will use their clout to help the bullet-train project as opposed to trying to enervate it.

7. The idea that trains dependent on conventional 20th-century engineering are the key to getting people around in 21st-century California is farcical to anyone who pays attention to the enormous building wave of transformative transportation technology. Driverless cars are only one example.

Fallows’ goal seems to be shoring up a project he perceives in trouble. But unless he moves out of his vacuum-based view of high-speed rail’s glories and addresses its California realities, he’s not even going to be a factor in debates over the bullet train — at least in the Golden State.

That’s because here, we’ve already heard all the happy talk. And we’ve noticed how little it meshes with reality.

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Comments(16)
  1. Robert S. Allen says:

    California Prop 1A in 2008 was titled “The Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act…” High Speed Rail requires a grade-separated, fenced, secure track. Caltrain has dozens of grade crossings and commute train station between San Jose and San Francisco. HSR on Caltrain there would be NEITHER SAFE NOR RELIABLE. And that is what CHSRA plans.—

    Initial HSR to the Bay Area must end at San Jose, with seamless transfers there to Caltrain, CapCor, VTA, and BART. The “one-seat ride to HSR” for San Francisco passengers squanders even more HSR money on Caltrain for a track HSR can never use safely.—

    Much better, safer, more reliable, and lower cost: extend HSR later along an up-graded UP/Amtrak East Bay Mulford route to Oakland and on to Sacramento. Add a transfer station in Oakland at the BART overhead. Trains every four minutes or oftener reach Embarcadero in downtown San Francisco in six minutes.

    Eliminate the cost of a future HSR Bay tunnel, electrifying Caltrain, and costly facilities in San Francisco.

  2. David H Dennis says:

    How about the simple fact that Americans don’t like public transit or ride trains in any significant numbers?

    Time and time again, these systems have been built, gain minimal ridership, and lose colossal sums.

    Why would this be any different?

    David

    • Robert says:

      YOU “daviddennis” speak from YOUR OPINION rather than reality. The Bay Area Rapid Transit trains are reaching capacity. The LA rail system is so well used and popular that ALL the naysayers have disappeared as politicos and communities beseech the Los Angeles MTA to build/extend rail lines into their neighborhoods. San Francisco is in the process of building a billion dollar subway extension that EVERYONE knows will be filled to capacity the moment it opens.

      Like I said: YOUR OPINION FAILS over reality.

      • Boo says:

        Robert, You left out the reality that BART loses more than a quarter billion dollars a year and that the LA rail system’s passenger revenues cover only around 30-35% of its costs. Apparently, your “reality” is one where this old joke isn’t a joke: “We lose money with each ticket we sell, but we’ll make it up on volume!”

  3. Queeg says:

    Wrong. The globalists and politicians will collude…..build Chinese style factories along the quick train….haul in the young and dumbed to knock out big box store babbles and trinkets and….. the usual carb temptations that soothe the tattered masses.

    It will be dynamic times for the uber rich while the beaten down Zorro loving peons huddle in dank public housing awaiting the return of fair señorita Zeta Jones and…… “Z”.

    No guarded gate goes unwatched. No tony cocktail party goes unnoticed. Crab buffet diners get a resentful eye.

    Viva-

    • Robert S. Allen says:

      Let’s defer HSR as planned. I’ve sent the powers that be this email on one aspect of their plan that really needs a re-study:

      CHSRA should remember Bourbonnais 1999. Amtrak on 79 mph track (like Caltrain) hit a hesvy truck at a grade crossing, derailed two locomotives and 11 of 14 cars, killed 11 passengers, and injured 128. Grade crossings don’t belong on tracks with fast passenger trains, let alone HSR trains!—

      Initial phase HSR to the Bay Area must end at San Jose, with seamless transfers there to Caltrain, Capitol Corridor, VTA, and BART.—

      Future HSR should consider following Amtrak’s East Bay route from San Jose to Santa Clara, via Mulford to Oakland, and on to Sacramento. In Oakland a new transfer station at the BART overhead is six minutes from Embarcadero in downtown San Francisco with trains on four minute (or less) headways.—

      2008 Prop 1A bonds were for “Safe, Reliable” HSR. Squander no more HSR bond money on Caltrain tracks. “Blended Rail” is NEITHER SAFE NOR RELIABLE! (I have no problem with money already spent to improve Caltrain grade crossing safety. But Caltrain electrification and extension into downtown San Francisco should not come from Prop 1A funds.)

  4. Robert S. Allen says:

    CHSRA should remember Bourbonnais 1999. Amtrak on 79 mph track (like Caltrain) hit a hesvy truck at a grade crossing, derailed two locomotives and 11 of 14 cars, killed 11 passengers, and injured 128. Grade crossings don’t belong on tracks with fast passenger trains, let alone HSR trains!—

    Initial phase HSR to the Bay Area must end at San Jose, with seamless transfers there to Caltrain, Capitol Corridor, VTA, and BART.—

    Future HSR should consider following Amtrak’s East Bay route from San Jose to Santa Clara, via Mulford to Oakland, and on to Sacramento. In Oakland a new transfer station at the BART overhead is six minutes from Embarcadero in downtown San Francisco with trains on four minute (or less) headways.

    2008 Prop 1A bonds were for “Safe, Reliable” HSR. Squander no more HSR bond money on Caltrain tracks. “Blended Rail” is NEITHER SAFE NOR RELIABLE!

  5. Rob Anderson says:

    Well-done deconstruction of Fallows, who is good on China and air transportation but not this. It’s disappointing because he’s usually better-informed about whatever he’s writing about. The project gets a lot of knee-jerk support from Democrats, who apparently don’t understand how ruinously expensive it would be, and I say that as a Democrat myself. Good to see some Democrats in the legislature are beginning to question the project.

    And with Democratic Party support goes union support, since it means jobs for the unions, which is all they really care about.

  6. Queeg says:

    Please. No charm….no math….no statistics….just reality.

    The train lives…..get used to it…the globalists want it……

    Finis-

    Why sweat it…just move with Ulysses Uhaul…No skin off your chubby posterior!

  7. The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System says:

    Yes it’s true– the worthless train is here little buddies. Even the corpulent republibaggers must serve their globalist masters…

  8. André says:

    Funny how objectioneers seem to think they can argue that people don’t love public transport and that air-travel is not public transport. The trouble with air-travel is that you have to share space with members of the public and while going through a two hour check-in you have to be with even more members of the hated public.
    Of course the risk with train travel is that when TSA looses business the will attempt to impose the same control of train travelling public. Then all advantage will be lost.
    Success of modern train travel depends on modern terminals which are well connected and have plenty facilities.

  9. Russ Miller says:

    Ask yourself, when would I use the train? What advantage does it have over taking the plane? I see only one clear advantage in taking HSR from the Bay Area to Los Angeles and this advantage can only happen if they make it a “land ferry”, we can have our vehicle to get around without having to make that long, boring drive through the Central Valley. Make the train like the Chunnel Train, let us take our cars on it. I’d pay extra to do that! This would be a money maker from the start. Later on, after all the external infrastructure is built, we can take public transit but in the meantime let us have our cars.

  10. Innocent Interrogator says:

    One question I’ve never seen answered (but I confess to not looking very hard):

    How will the HSR handle Tehachapi?

    Right now, the Tehachapi Loop is an amazing engineering achievement. Trains even cross over themselves as they transit the loop–it’s a giant helix. The current owners of the right of way won’t even allow passenger trains through (except for the Coast Starlight, and only if it’s normal route is blocked). Amtrak passengers take buses to connect to LA. It’s also one of the busiest bits of rail on Earth.

    Are they planning to somehow build a brand new route through the mountains? Tunnels? Even if they seized the existing right of way, how would freight get through? Widening the right of way might not even be possible without disruption to freight.

    Has anyone budgeted this?

  11. J Gates says:

    Whatever happened to the next to I-5 route? The rapid abandonment of that plan which would have been faster, require far fewer grade crossings, perhaps would have even met the SF to LA 2hr and 40min requirement and is in good part already public land is still a great mystery of this project. Guess there wasn’t enough money is this deal for some. More money has to be spent buying right of way and grade crossings on the CA-99 route. Cui bono?

  12. Robert S. Allen says:

    HSR and Caltrain would be extended to the mis-named Transbay Transit Center, located a long walk from the BART/Muni stations providing rail transit to San Francisco points and much of the Bay Area. It would better be called the San Francisco Bus Center.

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