It's one thing when a conservative columnist like Dan Walters or Sen. Jim Battin makes an ill-informed attack on high speed rail. But when the Oakland Tribune does the same thing in a Sunday editorial, it can be frustrating. One would hope that a newspaper's editorial staff would take more care to get their facts straight, but that doesn't seem to be the case here. Instead they have attacked the HSR plan based on some very deeply flawed assumptions - at times it reads like the editorial was cribbed from some HSR denial site.
These arguments resonate with many Californians who envision a fast, comfortable and affordable train trip from the Bay Area to Los Angeles or San Diego. That is why even after two failed attempts to get a bullet train bond measure on the statewide ballot, a third attempt is being made this year.
In 2004 and again in 2006, efforts to place a $10 billion high-speed rail bond on the ballot failed. This time around, the measure is gaining support in part because of the prospect of some private funding and federal money.
Here at the outset the editorial is misleading readers. They make it sound like HSR is a failure because it didn't make it to the ballot in 2004 or 2006, ostensibly because of lack of public support. The truth is that the bonds didn't go on the ballot because Arnold Schwarzenegger did not want the HSR bonds to compete with his own bond plans in both years. That's a crucial piece of information that the editorial doesn't offer.
However, a bullet-train system with 700 miles of track faces the same obstacles today that it always has: excessive capital costs and no guarantees that there will be enough riders to pay for huge operating expenses.
Unfortunately, as we will see, these "excessive capital costs" are speculative and not placed in any context, and the ridership numbers are questioned whereas massive subsidies for airlines and freeways are not even mentioned.
In an attempt to overcome these obstacles, proponents of a high-speed intercity rail system have come up with sunny projections of 42 million rides a year, net operating profits and fares lower than those of airlines.
We are not nearly as optimistic about the viability of bullet trains.
It would be useful to let readers know that every HSR line in the world generates net operating profits with fares comparable to or lower than those of airlines on the same route. Acela is not a true HSR line, but it has taken over 40% of the market share from airlines on the Northeast Corridor.
First, there is the high and growing estimated cost of a 700-mile system. The $10 billion bond money would be only a start. Two years ago, the estimated cost of the system was $34 billion. Today it is $40 billion. How much more will it be by the time it is up and running a dozen years from now?
Here again the editorial authors leave out a crucial piece of information: inflation and the declining dollar. The increased cost is directly due to those factors. And as long as the dollar continues to decline in value, yes, the capital cost will rise.
If past estimates of the cost of major construction projects are any indication, a 700-mile, high-speed rail system could cost $60 billion, $70 billion or more even in today's dollars.
Did the Oakland Tribune suggest we not build the East Span of the Bay Bridge even though the cost soared from an original estimate of $200 million to over $1.5 billion? Of course not. Freeway subsidies are never questioned by the media. Nor is the cost of HSR ever placed in context. If HSR is not built, what will the cost be of expanding airports and freeways to match the same demand? The last numbers we saw on that were $80 billion - so HSR is a net savings to the state.
More importantly, what is the energy and climate cost of not building HSR? Cheap oil is on its way out, and its disappearance has in the last week alone claimed four airlines and put the rest in serious financial straits. And this is before peak oil has made its full impact felt on the US. Further, we can expect there to be significant carbon fees added onto air travel in the next 10 years, either through an outright carbon tax or through a cap-and-trade system that will still likely be passed onto consumers.
If we do nothing and not build HSR, the costs of maintaining an oil-based transportation system are likely to surpass $40 billion very quickly.
Ridership projections also seem to be excessively sanguine. Supporters of the rail system estimate it would have 42 million rides per year. That's about 115,000 per day. To accommodate that many riders, there would have to be 100 20-car trains running every day between Northern and Southern California. That is a lot of expensive equipment to maintain, not to mention 700 miles of special track, numerous stations and a large work force.
There would have to be one north-bound train every 15 minutes for 121/2hours seven days a week and an equal number of southbound trains. The logistics of operating such a massive system are daunting.
This sounds almost exactly like Martin Engel's claims, and they don't hold up. A significant portion of that ridership will come from regional commuters. Even if the ridership isn't 42 million per year - say it is 35 million - it would still be worth the economic and sustainable value of building the system.
And of course the equipment will have to be maintained. That creates green jobs - or has the Oakland Tribune suddenly decided economic growth is a bad thing? The logistics are far from daunting, as they have been solved for quite a long time by the Asian and European HSR systems.
The fact is there is no way anyone can accurately predict how many people will choose to use the train instead of driving or flying.
Driving is cheaper if two or more people are in a car, and air travel will still be considerably faster, especially if the Transportation Safety Administration decides to screen rail travelers the same as airline passengers.
Ridership on Amtrak California lines is soaring thanks to high gas prices and the reliability of trains. Add speed and frequency of service to that and it makes sense that ridership will skyrocket on HSR.
Especially because, as the above selection makes clear, the editorial says absolutely nothing about soaring gas prices and declining supplies. There is simply no way that driving will be cheaper than HSR in 10 years even with two or more people in a car. Gas prices are not going to stop at $4/gal, and by 2018 we will be feeling the supply shortages that peak oil will produce.
If peak oil is a myth and if gas retreats from $4/gal, then we will see even more people flock to the state's freeways, clogging them and making a trip from LA to SF take even longer than it does now. Even in that case HSR will be needed to meet the anticipated need.
If ridership is substantially below estimates, either fares will have to be much higher than for airplane tickets or, as seems likely, the state will have to heavily subsidize the rail system with taxpayer money.
BART, which has a ridership of more than twice that of the highest estimates of high-speed rail, still posts a large operating loss despite having among the highest rail transit fares in the nation.
There is little chance that the suggested fares of three-fourths of air fares would cover operating costs even if ridership approached estimates, which also is highly unlikely.
Airplane tickets are already heavily subsidized - but you wouldn't know it from reading this editorial. Subsidies aren't bad - they're a perfectly acceptable method of promoting economic growth. Otherwise the Oakland Tribune is arguing that BART shouldn't have been built. I'd love to see them take that position openly - nobody in the East Bay would take it seriously.
But perhaps the best reason East Bay residents should be especially wary of supporting bullet trains is the route adopted by the states High-Speed Rail Authority.
Instead of building the rail line in the East Bay, where there are 2.6 million people in growing Alameda and Contra Costa counties, the train will run from San Francisco, down the Peninsula, an area of about 1.5 million people that is not growing fast.
This is a legitimate area of concern for East Bay residents. But at the same time, it's not exactly difficult for them to reach the Transbay Terminal (a 20-40 minute BART ride) or San José Diridon Station (a 30-40 minute Capitol Corridor ride). HSR should and will link to the East Bay someday, but they will immediately benefit from this system's construction even if it doesn't enter Alameda County.
There are much better ways to spend $40 billion or more on transportation such as highways, metropolitan transit and airport expansion. That's the reality that should bring state leaders to their senses and derail the fantasy of a costly bullet train system in California.
Huh? It's better to spend $80 billion on transportation that is going to be obsolete in a decade than to invest in a clean and sustainable system that will last the century? Where exactly will airport expansion happen? The Oakland Tribune should explain how exactly OAK and SFO can expand (into the bay?), or why we should spend billions on new highways that Californians won't be able to afford to use in a few years.
The only fantasy here is that we live in a perpetual 1996 of low oil prices and limitless expansion opportunities for airports and freeways. Here in 2008 it is already clear for numerous reasons - economic, energy, climate - that we need to develop alternative transportation systems. The Oakland Tribune doesn't understand any of that, and their attack on HSR reflects their almost total lack of understanding of the project and the context in which it will be built. Hopefully Californians will show a better understanding of our state's needs.