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California High Speed Rail: Let's Talk Facts

June 6, 2016

California High Speed Rail: A Bargain For Modern Mobility & Development

by Jim Mathews/President & CEO

The Wall Street Journal is a fine newspaper. I read it most every day and have for decades. As a practioner of the craft of journalism for more than three decades, I believe firmly that the WSJ is one of the last bastions of quality journalism left on the American landscape. That's why it baffles me that the WSJ can be so completely and consistently wrongheaded on rail issues generally and on high-speed rail specifically.

The latest provocation from the WSJ fell with a thud on to the editorial page on May 23rd, derisively dismissing the California High Speed Rail project as "California's Bullet Train to Whenever." The editorial claimed that polls show "only 44% of voters favor high-speed rail."

Well, that's nonsense. As our friend, colleague and former NARP Board Chair George Chilson observed, this very selective statistic misrepresents the real findings of the March 2016 statewide survey on the issue, conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California. Let's instead turn to what those surveyed actually said.

The poll reported that 63% -- nearly two-thirds -- of all adults surveyed said the high-speed rail system was "somewhat" or "very" important to the future quality of life and economic vitality of California. Just a bit more than half -- 52% -- favored spending $68 billion over the next two decades to build it. Even those opposed to it, when asked how they would feel if the price came down, came around to support high-speed rail: overall support in that category rose to 66% of adults surveyed and 59% among likely voters.

Impressive on its face, yes. But considering how few Americans have ever personally experienced truly modern passenger rail service, that kind of support is powerful and surprising. In fact, it's even more so considering how hard the WSJ, the highway builders and the NIMBY caucus have worked the propaganda machine to tear down this worthy investment.

Is $68 billion a lot of money? Of course it is. But consider, too, that California is growing. A lot. California’s population is straining the nation’s busiest roads. The California High-Speed Rail Authority is building America’s first 21st century high-speed rail system – 800 miles of rail with 24 stations between San Diego and Sacramento, initially connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles with 200-mph trains. That will cost money, time and engineering effort, but it will cost a lot LESS than doing nothing.

What happens if you don't spend $68 billion on this project? You spend at least $158 billion instead, adding 4,300 new miles of highway lanes, 115 new airport gates and four additional major-airport runways. Some less-conservative estimates put that figure at $272 billion. And even by spending more you do nothing about congestion, nothing about lost time, nothing about highway safety (driving is, on average about 17 times more hazardous than taking a train or flying) and nothing about greenhouse gas emissions.

On the other hand, going ahead with the project generates a total economic return to the state of California of about $8 billion on its initial $2.6 billion investment. The project will create 66,000 new jobs for 15 years as this massive system is built. Each year, the high-speed train will eliminate at least 330,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions.

By delivering a new, better and more reliable mobility choice at upwards of 75% less cost, high-speed rail is a bargain, not a "boondoggle." WSJ calls it a "choo-choo." We call it a forward-thinking and economical strategy for sustaining the prosperity and quality of life of California's exploding population.