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.