Eric A. Morris has published a post on the Freakonomics blog of the New York Times entitled "High Speed Rail and CO2". IMHO, his is a poorly researched and extremely biased article since it completely disregards research commissioned by CHSRA.
Before I explain my gut reaction to Mr. Morris' hit piece, please bear in mind that reducing CO2 emissions is not the core objective of the California HSR project. Rather, its principal purpose is to enhance population mobility at the medium-distance scale by giving residents and tourists a safe, affordable and environmentally responsible alternative to long drives and short flights.
The CO2 emissions avoided during construction and operations are a result of rail technology, i.e. making do with just a narrow strip of land, avoiding asphalt and using grid-electric traction. Personally, I think of any direct reductions in CO2 emissions as icing on the cake.
What follows is a cross-post of my comment on the NYT blog.
- First of all, Mr. Morris' article portrays the cost estimate of $80 billion produced by one person in Minnesota as gospel while failing to mention that the California High Speed Rail Authority's (CHSRA) own forecast is around $33 billion for the SF-San Jose-Fresno-LA-Anaheim starter line and another $12 billion total for the phase II extensions to San Diego, Irvine and Sacramento, respectively.
It also neglects to mention that phase II construction will be funded with non-state bonds backed by operating surpluses from phase I. It is completely disingenuous to report that California taxpayers will be burdened with the cost of funding the entire network. Indeed, the language of California AB3034(2008) includes numerous safeguards to ensure the state's contribution remains limited to $9.95 billion, of which $950 million is reserved for capital projects of local and regional agencies that operate connecting transit.
All this must be compared to the cost of doing nothing and also to the cost of building more roads and runways instead. Both alternatives were estimated to be much more expensive, with the cost of the no-build alternative measured in lost productivity and other opportunity parameters. This aspect of the program EIR/EIS study did not even include the option of providing reliable broadband internet access to HSR passengers.
- Second, wrt to CO2 emissions: it beggars belief that the author should compare a study for HS2 in the UK - which assumes the extra electricity would be produced mostly from coal - with the California situation. CHSRA decided before the election last fall that the entire system would operate exclusively on renewable electricity, with new wind turbines being the cheapest way to implement that. Using renewables will eliminate most of the 19.1 million barrels of oil equivalent* that would otherwise be required each year (vs. 24.3 for the no-build and 24.5 for the modal alternative). CHSRA estimated the additional power requirement for peak period operations in 2020 is 480MW, about 0.6% of total generating capacity in the state at that time.
As for the energy required for construction, CHSRA estimates 152 trillion** BTUs, equivalent to 26.2 million barrels of oil equivalent. That's comparable to about 16 months of operations - not trivial, but not terribly significant relative to a system life expectancy measured in decades. For reference, the construction of highway lane-miles and airport runways under the modal alternative would require 37% more energy. Again, the overwhelming majority of total energy is consumed during the years of operation.
* CHSRA Final Program EIR/EIS Chapter 7.1.1 (Library -> Archived Materials)
** The document actually interprets 1 MMBTU as 1 million BTUs but that strikes me as a clerical error.