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California’s Magic Fix for High-Speed Rail

California’s embattled high-speed rail project has been attracting skeptics for some time—not least for its $100 billion price tag. But defenders of the program aren’t giving up the fight easily. The Wall Street Journal reports that the California High-Speed Rail Authority has now reduced cost estimates for the project to $68.4 billion, mainly by running trains on local-transit tracks in LA and San Francisco. All well and good, except…there’s something fishy going on: Despite the cost cutbacks, the projected travel time didn’t budge:

Under the updated plan, the system would be finished in 2028, when passengers would be able to pay $81, in 2010 dollars, to ride a train from San Francisco to Los Angeles in under three hours. That’s the same travel time envisioned under the earlier, more costly plan. The rail authority said the reason the same travel time will be possible is that the earlier plan didn’t count on trains traveling at high speed into and out of Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Perhaps this was just an oversight in the original calculations, but it strains credulity that the price of the rail projects could be cut by nearly a third without affecting the trains’ speed. It seems more likely there’s some overly optimistic reckoning here, either on the lower construction costs or on the efficacy of sharing track with slower, local trains.

Even if these adjustments turn out to be workable, they hardly vindicate the project. Yes, $68 billion is lower than $98 billion, but it is still higher than the original budget estimate of $45 billion. And as the project continues, the price is bound to creep upward again. Magic fixes like this may look good on paper, but they never last.

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  • Jim.

    Considering the ridership this boondoggle will have in the end, and the expense of it all, we could set up infrastructure for as many people to travel to and from Mars for the same price.

  • Luke Lea

    Is this doomed project only being kept alive on paper because whoever is in charge of drawing up the proposals and plans is drawing a salary?

  • vanderleun

    “It seems more likely there’s some overly optimistic reckoning….”

    Well, maybe in your happy world. In another world that is less constrained and bound up we call it lying, fraud, a hoax, false, [scatalogical references removed].

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    California is a Blue Model nightmare, and High Speed Rail is just one aspect of the whole, and not the worst.


    Luke Lea asks: “Is this doomed project only being kept alive on paper because whoever is in charge of drawing up the proposals and plans is drawing a salary?” Well, yes, surprise there is a bureaucracy bound up in it, along with the Gang of Consultants,as well as the public and private unions and their political (read money) support. Then too, it fits the green self-image, and in California, image is everything. In actuality, the near San Francisco and near L.A. tracks are shared with commuter lines, and in some cases with busy freight lines. So, no, the timetables are as phony as the business plan, ridership expectancy, and financing.

  • Corlyss

    “has now reduced cost estimates for the project to $68.4 billion”

    Gee. I wish I could do that with my mortage – just blue-pencil the sum and put in whatever I needed to sell the bank the idea that I had delivered something meaningful.

    Back in my youth, there was a perfume ad whose tag line was “Promise her ANYTHING, but give her Arpege.” That’s California. Tell the public you can deliver anything they want at whatever price you are willing to confess. Don’t matter if you can’t do it as long as you deliver the perfume. Your intentions were good, just your execution missed the mark. No matter. The public will smell good if nothing else.

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