The Breakdown | Explaining Southern California's economy

California high-speed rail is dead. No it isn't. Yes it is. No it isn't...

An artist's rendering of California's high speed rail.
An artist's rendering of California's high speed rail.
California High Speed Rail Authority

At Slate, Will Oremus says high-speed rail is a goner. And not just in California, but everywhere. Of course, everywhere but California, the "speed" part of high-speed was questionable:

The Europeans define high-speed trains as those that travel at speeds of 155 miles per hour or more (or 125 mph for tracks that are upgraded, rather than newly built). Wisconsin’s proposed $823 million Milwaukee-to-Madison line was to reach 110 mph, at most, in between stops in cities such as Brookfield and Oconomowoc. Ohio’s version was even slower, with trains on an upgraded freight-rail track topping out at 79 mph. With stops, the trip from Cincinnati to Cleveland would have been significantly slower by rail than by car. Who would ride such a thing?...
For all that, a line in California, connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco, still seemed to stand a chance. Unlike its counterparts elsewhere in the country, the California line would be true, dedicated high-speed rail, with trains running up to 220 mph. It would connect two metropolises of seven-million-plus people that are just far enough apart to make a drive unappetizing (six hours sans traffic) and a plane hop unwieldy. And the plans were already in place; the state had been working on a high-speed rail line for decades and lacked only the money to execute it. It was, it seemed, the perfect showcase for the Obama stimulus. This was more than just digging holes in the ground—it was putting people to work building something that the country needed anyway. Not only is California’s Interstate 5 congested and getting worse, but air traffic between San Francisco and Los Angeles is beginning to be a problem as well. Without high-speed trains, the state will need to build more highways, more airports, or both.

Oremus links to an AP story that came out last month, when the High-Apeed Rail Authority in California announced that the project was going to cost more than originally projected:

Under the revised business plan, initial construction would start with a $5.2 billion "spine" from Fresno to Bakersfield to be completed in 2017. The line would then be extended further north or south—from Merced to Palmdale, in the Los Angeles basin, or from Bakersfield to San Jose.

The first 130-mile segment would create about 100,000 jobs in the hard-hit Central Valley, according to the report. Building the entire system would generate about 1 million jobs.

The report notes that while the $98.5 billion tab seems high, California's growing population would otherwise require about $170 billion in new infrastructure, such as freeways and airport runways.

First, let's look at the "spine" part, which at $5.2 billion would be funded by the $10 billion Proposition 1A bond measure that California voters passed in 2008. It's basically a state-sponsored stimulus project that could put thousands to work over the projected five years it would take to build it. Critics are concerned that it would turn into an inland boondoggle, but it could just as easily function as a proof-of-concept once the trains start running. 

To get the whole thing done, federal funding and private investment would have materialize. And as Oremus points out, Republicans in the House have voted to kill high-speed rail funding for 2012.

But what you really need to look at is the $170 billion that it would cost to build additional freeways and airport runways — the unappealing alternative to high-speed rail. It winds up being twice as much money as the high-speed rail project in California. And it's not actually clear that any of it could be built. But even if it could — and that's a big "if," considering the potential public opposition — what would be required? 

The California Progress Report summarizes:

Without [high-speed rail], we’ll need an additional 2,300 lane-miles of highway, four more major runways and an additional 115 airline gates. Aside from the impracticality of expanding airports, the costs of these measures are prohibitively expensive. And the costs are more than dollars: loss in economic productivity due to lengthening commutes, a lower quality of life from hours sitting in traffic, and poorer air quality because instead of removing cars from the road, we will have added more.

I find it helpful to take the quality-of-life stuff out and focus on the idea that we even want something like a much bigger LAX or SFO, much less a few more 405 freeways in our midst. It's entirely possible that what Oremus says Californians have voted for in the past, when they supported high-speed rail, wasn't a railroad but an economic game-changer. Gas prices that approached $5 a gallon were fresh in their minds back in '08. And everyone who's paying attention knows that closing the distance between Silicon Valley and Hollywood, not to mention Southern Californian's own startup tech and biotech industries, could set the state on a path to shifting the country's economic center of gravity away from the East Coast to the Pacific Rim facing West Coast.

This is a spend-it-now-or-spend-it-later deal. Do we really want the rail solution to be pushing half a trillion by midcentury, after we've found that we can't actually do the $170 billion on freeways and runways? Borrowing is extremely cheap right now. So before we give up on high-speed rail in California, we should do the math.

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