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A Retrospective on High Speed Rail: Always Off the Track


Twenty years ago I was Executive Director of the San Bernardino Transportation Commission and had the opportunity to spend three weeks at U.C. Berkeley on a “micro-sabbatical.” The high-speed rail proposal was then attracting attention. While there I analyzed the newly issued high-speed rail feasibility studies. Two months later Cal’s Institute of Governmental Studies published my analysis in an article entitled, “High Speed Rail in California: An Expensive Train to a Slower Trip.” I believe this was the first published article which made the case that HSR would be a colossal mistake.

Governor Newsom blames the downfall of HSR as “mismanagement” and thus diverts attention from the real issue: HSR was, and is, a bad idea. “Bad” management can make a bad idea worse but “good” management can’t turn a bad idea into a good idea. It should be obvious now that this disaster is a result of a flawed decision-making process (described below) which has guaranteed failure.

Following a quick review of HSR’s history over the past twenty years the remainder of this essay is a re-print of a portion of my 1999 article which dealt with these questions: “How can a proposal of this scale and impact go this far with so little debate and public discussion? What are the politics of promoting a solution in search of a problem?”

First a quick jaunt through HSR’s history of shifting objectives, claims, promises, projections and delusional financing schemes. The only two constants over the last twenty years have been that costs are increasing and ridership is decreasing.

HSR is needed to relieve airport congestion. The original studies touted HSR diversion of air passengers as the most important purpose for the project. The 1998 feasibly study concluded that almost two-thirds of the HSR ridership would be “diverted” from the LA-SF corridor.

HSR is needed to curb carbon emissions. Net carbon reduction might be achieved – but not for at least the some 50 years it will take to amortize the volume of carbon emissions produced during construction.

HSR should be financed by a state sales tax increase. This was the original financing plan but then someone realized that by a majority state-wide vote (rather than two-thirds) the project could be bonded; thus magically eliminating public disclosure of the need for additional taxes.

HSR is needed because “High-speed rail costs less than one-half as much as the alternatives – building more lanes, bridges and ramps and terminals.” This quote from Governor Brown has no basis in fact and was repeated often by gullible newspaper editorial boards.

HSR is needed to provide a $1billion windfall to local commuter rail systems. This was the price extracted in return for local transit agencies’ support of the $9 billion bond Proposition IA in 2008.

HSR is needed to facilitate long-distance commuting from the Central Valley to the Silicon Valley. This rationale began to surface about 2007. The original feasibly studies made no reference to daily commuters.

HSR is needed to concentrate development in the Central Valley. (Jerry Brown)

HSR is needed to move people to jobs elsewhere in the Central Valley. A commute trip on HSR means that the average distance between where the average commuter works and lives will increase. Last time I checked this goal was not on top of Smart Growth’s checklist.

HSR is needed because Europe, Japan and China have it.

HSR is needed because it would be “The backbone of a fast, clean mass-transportation system that would connect urban centers across the state.” (LA Times Editorial, February 14, 2019)

HSR is needed to provide faster passenger trips. The most recent projections for the erstwhile LA-SF system indicate that HSR would provide a slower door-to-door trip than a competing auto or air trip.