Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Bullet Train Aimed at Heart of California

California’s high-speed train project excites the heck out of me. I’ve wanted to ride such a train for years, and love the idea of making the trip between the Bay Area and Los Angeles in less than half the time it normally takes to drive.

Still, I can’t help but believe the project will prove to be a massive waste of taxpayer money. Thrilling as it would be to ride at speeds greater than 200 miles per hour, those thrills will come at the expense of education, public safety, water projects, and other essential needs.

For years now, California has gone deeper and deeper in debt, relying increasingly on the sale of interest-bearing bonds to pay for every public need and special interest pet project. The bullet train, in fact, got on track thanks to voters approving just shy of $10 billion of new bonds. Those funds have so far been unavailable, however, as the state budget crisis led the Pooled Money Investment Board to freeze infrastructure projects. Meanwhile, the state has yet to sell even one dollar of bonds for the project, and the State Treasurer has had to secure a $29 million short-term loan just to keep the design engineers and consultants on the job.

Despite the legislature’s recent $42 billion tax hike, California will still fall an additional $8 billion deeper in debt this year, increasing pressure to cut non-essential programs like the sexy, but superfluous bullet train. And if the politicians press on with the project while laying off public employees, cutting school funding, limiting police overtime, releasing criminal inmates ahead of schedule, and taking myriad other money saving measures, they will demonstrate their utter disregard for the public welfare.

There’s no denying the bullet train’s appeal. I’ve spent plenty of time on the state’s bullet train website (http://www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov/) watching the animated videos, perusing photos of proposed stations across the state, and marveling at the short travel times between those stations. If the project goes ahead as planned, cities like Fresno, Bakersfield and Modesto will boast gorgeous new facilities that will certainly enhance the urban appeal of those Central Valley towns.

But who will actually use those facilities?

Even with several stops in the South Bay and Central Valley, a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles is expected to take only about two-and-a-half hours and cost less than $60. By comparison, a car would take roughly six hours and cost only slightly less (assuming 20 miles per gallon and current fuel costs of about $3.15 per gallon). Sounds good so far. But how many people making this trip would not need a car once they arrived at their destination? And how many would make this trip alone?

Factor in the cost of a car rental in LA or San Francisco, and a bullet train trip quickly becomes a much more expensive option than driving -- and that’s assuming one travels alone. What about couples and families? When you drive, the cost of the trip does not increase at all when you add a second, third, or fourth passenger. On the train, however, the cost doubles with the second passenger, or triples with three, etc. A family of four, for example, could drive from San Francisco to LA for about $60 worth of gas (My family could make it for less than $40 thanks to our efficient Scion xB's excellent fuel mileage). Taking the train would cost that family $240 and leave them in Southern California without a car, which as anyone familiar with that region knows, means leaving them stranded. Relying on city buses and taxis to visit Disneyland, Universal Studies, the beaches, and other destinations will quickly add many hours of wait and travel time to the family’s itinerary, not to mention increased costs and misery. In reality, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would consider such a combination of public transportation as a realistic option. In other words, count families out as potential bullet train passengers from the very beginning.

That leaves individuals traveling alone, probably mostly business travelers. As it is, most of these folks probably fly between the Bay Area and LA and spend a bit more than the projected cost of a bullet train ticket. But they get there in less than an hour, and even assuming longer check-in times, still would make the round-trip at least an hour-and-a-half faster than on a bullet train. For people making that round-trip in a single day, that is a decisive advantage for air travel. And individuals planning to spend more than a day at their destination will almost certainly demand the convenience of a car while there. Driving their own vehicle would make a lot of sense for these folks, since it’s cheap and provides maximum mobility. The combination of bullet train and car rental just will not be very appealing.

So who is left to ride the train?

I can see it now. Gleaming, empty trains pulling into cavernous new stations while children are crammed into overcrowded classrooms, crime escalates, and California digs itself deeper into a fiscal mess which it seems to have no stomach for cleaning up.

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