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By Tom Cushing

A Train to Nowhere?

Uploaded: Jan 10, 2012

I am generally a fan of massive public works projects. BART and the Golden Gate and Bay bridges locally, the space program and the interstate highway system are all examples of bold undertakings started in another era, which will pay multiple dividends far into the uncharted future.

I am less enthusiastic about our state's great water projects (primarily for thumbing their nervy engineer noses at Mother Nature), and recent, less inspired improvements like the capacity-neutral Bay Bridge retrofit, with bike lanes, and especially the Caldecott Tunnel expansion. Why go to the trouble of boring that ridge, to add only two more lanes and relieve congestion solely in the contra-flow direction? I'm reminded of that folly every time I drive to the West Bay, through the stacked, six-lanes-each way, Yerba Buena Island tunnel that was dug in the 1930s. Generally, more recent projects seem less imaginative, bold and useful than those created by earlier Californians.

Enter the California high-speed rail project. As a card-carrying Lionel train set veteran, I ought to love it – and I want to like it, at least. But I can't. I just can't make its claims add-up in my personal calculus, even before recent concerns, reported hereabouts last week, labeled the Rail Authority not-ready-for-prime-time.

That Peer Review Report cited problems with sustainable funding, the siting of early segments and a currently incomplete business plan. My concerns go deeper, and relate to the fundamentals of the project.
Pleading the case on its website, the Authority leads with "our economy needs a jumpstart." So this is a Keynesian stimulus project? In its companion YouTube video, 600,000 construction jobs are claimed. I'm in favor of counter-cyclical government spending, so I'm interested – especially if there's some fundamental transportation justification.

But then the track takes a wide curve and touts several other factors that set my nose a-twitchin' to the aroma of bovine leftovers. First, they claim 450,000 permanent jobs created by the economically self-sustainable system. Let's say those jobs average $60K annually, fully costed -- that'd be $27 Beellion dollars in wages alone, every year. That's a whole lot of ticket dollars from the claimed 117 million annual passengers, before paying for Anything else. And if, instead, that jobs number takes into account growth along the route, I neither believe it (way too speculative), nor would I be in-favor of it. The Central Valley is for farms.

They then claim that the cost of alternative infrastructure capacity in road lanes and airport runways would be twice the expense of building the rail system. I'm sorry, that doesn't pass the sniff test either, especially when the rail estimates have already recently doubled – and the unknowns associated with the roadbeds option are much fewer and farther betwixt. The Authority also claims substantial greenhouse gas avoidance, vs. alternatives. But the rail numbers are likely to be static, as the technology is known; cars and jets are both certain to improve dramatically in that regard.

But here's where the High-Speed rail train really leaves the track, for me – rail, even better, faster rail – is no better than the current air-based mass transit that by-passes land-based problems. It's not faster and cannot get much faster; it's not cheaper, either, and rail does not tie-into local transit substantially better than air alternatives. It feels like we're proposing to invest massively in better, faster ferry boats instead of bridges. Further, rail's technologies are already well-known as invented by others, elsewhere, so the economy is unlikely to receive the throw-off benefits of innovation associated with, say, the space program (not even Tang).

If the state and the feds are going to invest society's dollars in something to "put California in the forefront of the Green Economy," I want it to be truly visionary, cutting-edge stuff. I want Buck Rogers, not Casey Jones. There's trouble ahead.