Will High Speed Rail Ever Get on Track?

AUG. 19, 2010

Last month I had the privilege of riding the best train in California. Indeed, it’s perhaps the best in the Lower 48. This train is efficient, safe and even fun to ride. At no time during my journey did anyone accost me, nor did security guards or police ever harass the passengers. While there were no published schedules around the various stations, passengers were very tolerant and content to simply wait until the train arrived. It helped that nobody had to buy individual tickets. For that reason, seating was fairly cramped, especially in the afternoon, but at the end of our trip we all got to see dinosaurs, and everyone loves dinosaurs, right?

Of course, I’m talking about the Disneyland Railroad, which I’m very happy to say hasn’t changed even a little bit from my youth. And yes, it’s just another attraction at a very expensive theme park, but it also embodies everything that rail transit should be – it’s easy to use, relatively quick and free. In fact, urban light rails could learn something from this little narrow gauge line: you’re already heavily subsidized, so just suck it up and stop charging people to ride. What you’ll lose in fares you’ll immediately gain in ridership.

But I’m getting slight off track. The California High Speed Rail Authority, charged with building an 800-mile, 220-plus mile-per-hour bullet train system throughout the state, seems completely unable to learn anything from Disneyland or any other rail line, for that matter. Authority officials still cling to the notion that it will end up costing a mere $45 billion (estimates from places like the Reason Institute hover perilously close to twice that amount). Where they will get even $45 billion seems impossible to fathom.

Two years ago, voters approved Proposition 1A, which authorized $9.95 billion in general obligation bond money to get the bullet train project moving. While the rail authority insists that it can build the bullet trains with public and private financing, it still anticipates receiving nearly $20 billion in federal funds. Earlier this year, the Legislative Analyst’s Office took exception to that assumption when critiquing the authority’s business plan.

“The plan assumes between $17 billion and $19 billion from federal funds by 2016, or nearly $3 billion per year for the next six years,” the Jan. 11, 2010 LAO report stated. “In comparison, over the past five years California has received roughly $3 billion per year of formula funding for the state’s entire highway system, which is primarily funded through federal gas tax collected in the state.”

Indeed, the odds are so bad that Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the CATO Institute, recently told CNN that the funding is a huge issue that imperils the entire project.

“Given the (current levels of federal stimulus) funding, I would say that it is fairly likely that at least a few moderate-speed rail projects will eventually be completed,” he said in this CNN story. “But the California high-speed rail project remains fairly unlikely considering that more than three-fourths of its costs are not yet funded.”

Highly unlikely. Those are strong words. Is there any evidence that the rail authority is taking them seriously?

Um, not really.

“We are all committed to building a world-class high-speed rail system and this groundbreaking signals another step in the process of making that system a reality,” Authority Chairman Curt Pringle said during an Aug. 11 ceremony marking the the start of construction on a new Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco that will — one day, it’s hoped — host the bullet trains. “We’re pleased that the Transbay Joint Powers Authority has made the future development of a high-speed rail system a centerpiece of its planning for this muti-model transit center. Projects like these, if done right, have the potential to truly transform a city and reinvent the way Californians travel — making it faster, cheaper, more convenient and better for the environment.”

If Pringle — still the mayor of Anaheim, which includes Disneyland in its jurisdiction — is serious about bullet trains, he needs to spend less time talking about “multi-model” anything and more time thinking about what makes the Disneyland Railroad so neat.

-Anthony Pignataro

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