Actually it’s a Bargain!

By Noel T. Braymer

The main argument by opponents of California’s High Speed Rail project is that it is unaffordable. That the cost estimates are too low and the project will result in a major burden for taxpayers with little benefit. The critics point to the original estimate for the project of $30 billion dollars for Phase 1 service between Anaheim and San Francisco. The estimate for Phase 1 by 2012 rose to $68 billion with the critics claiming that the true cost would go past $100 billion if the project continued. So what happened?

Much of what determines construction costs for any form of transportation is the cost of acquiring right of way and costs associated with mitigation of impacts on the environment. The original assumption by the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) was that most construction in the San Joaquin Valley would be along the Union Pacific Right of Way. This is the straightest right of way, it would be the cheapest to build on, would have the fewest environmental impacts and was where most of the cities in the San Joaquin Valley wanted to build their High Speed Rail stations.The CHSRA assumed there would be no problem getting the Union Pacific’s cooperation on this matter.

Right after the passage of Prop 1A in November 2008 which approved the bonds for the High Speed Rail Project, the Union Pacific made it very clear they would not allow the CHSRA to use their right of way for the High Speed Rail project. After 2012 when it became clear that the project would go ahead, the UP has been a little more flexible, but the damage was done. This forced a new plan using large parts of the BNSF San Joaquin Valley Right of way. But even with this it would be necessary for the high speeds planned for this project to acquire large tracts of private property to build new rights of way for High Speed Rail to avoid curves that would slow the trains. This was a major factor in increasing the cost of the project over the original estimates.

By 2012 the California High Speed Rail project was a mess. There was serious talk of cancelling the project. Out of this came a new business plan which would have a more realistic chance of success. This new business plan was largely the work of the Legislature’s appointed High Speed Rail Peer Review Group. These are unpaid professionals in rail, transportation, finance and engineering who largely dictated the 2012 business plan. To prevent future increases in the construction budget, the budget for Phase 1 was raised to $68 billion dollars. This included much more money for contingencies. This made it harder for the project to go over budget and increased the chance they would come under budget. Since construction began in 2015, estimates and construction costs have on average come in under budget. Even when some segments of the project have cost more than estimated, they were still within the level budgeted for contingencies. With the 2016 business plan the CHSRA lowered its budget for Phase 1 to $64 billion dollars. This was done with the approval of the Peer Review Group.

So how does California High Speed Rail compare to other transportation projects? Let’s look at 3 rail transit projects in Los Angeles County. These projects have broad public support and have not gone wildly over budget as would be predicted by the critics of rail construction. Los Angeles County did have budget overrun problems with its Red Line construction in the late 20th Century. But it has gotten better building rail transit with experience. First example is the recently completed Expo Light Rail Line between downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica. This 15.1 mile line was built on a publicly owned former railroad right of way and public streets. The only tunnel for it is shared with an existing subway built for the Blue Line into downtown Los Angeles. There are several elevated segments to go over major roads and sound walls were built to mitigate noise in residential neighborhoods. The full cost of the 15.1 mile Expo Line came to $2.5 billion dollars. That is around $167 million dollars a mile in construction costs.

Under construction now in Los Angeles County is the Crenshaw/LAX Light Rail Project. It will connect with the Green Line at the southeast edge of LAX and run north up to Exposition Blvd for passenger connections to the Expo Line. It will also have connections to LAX with a joint station for the LAX People Mover. This route of 8.5 miles has several miles of subway construction under Crenshaw Blvd. The rest of the project south of Slauson Ave is being built on a publicly owned former railroad right of way. This segment on the former railroad will have several bridges over major roads in the region. The current budget for this project is $1.7 billion dollars which for 8.5 miles comes to around $208 million dollars a mile.

The most expensive transit project in Los Angeles County is the extension of the Purple Line subway from Western Ave and Wilshire Blvd to the eastern edge of Beverly Hills at La Cienega Blvd and Wilshire Blvd. This is part of a larger project to extend the Purple Line west next to Century City and finally to Westwood along the Wilshire corridor. The segment to La Cienga is planned to open by 2023, to Century City by 2026 and Westwood by 2035. This is the most traveled corridor in Los Angeles. From Western to Westwood is 10 miles while the extension to La Cienega is 3.9 miles of the 10 miles. This 3.9 mile section now under construction is budgeted at at $2.8 billion dollars. That is about $718 million dollars a mile for construction, Subway construction is always the most expensive transit construction. But it is cheaper than trying to buy land for a right of way in a densely urban area. Much of the cost for subways is for the constructions of stations along with the tunneling.

So lets compare these costs to the cost for California High Speed Rail. Phase 1 is now budgeted for $64 billion dollars. This is for 520 miles between Anaheim and San Francisco planned now for completion by 2029. If more funding was available sooner, this work could be done in less time and for less money. Even with current estimates the cost per mile for 520 miles of Phase 1 is around $123 million dollars a mile which is less than the cost per mile of the Expo Line at around $167 million dollars a mile. Why is that? Primarily construction in dense urban areas, particularly for transportation is always expensive. Most of the construction for California High Speed Rail is in open areas where the main problems are the need to acquire land by eminent domain which is expensive and slow. Even where tunneling is needed, it is less expensive than subway construction because no underground stations will be needed. Also the CHSRA has been working to save money in construction in urban area by sharing station and tracks with existing rail services which is much cheaper than building new in an urban setting. Examples of this “blended service” is with Caltrain between San Jose and San Francisco. In Southern California High Speed Rail will share tracks and stations between Bob Hope Airport in Burbank through Los Angeles Union Station to Anaheim. High Speed Trains won’t be going 220 miles per hour in San Francisco or Los Angeles. It is not practical to run at speeds more than 125 miles per hour in urban areas and time savings running fast for short distances is small. This will not prevent express trains from running between Los Angeles and San Francisco in under 2 hours and 40 minutes.The CHSRA is helping to fund improvements where they are sharing tracks which works for the benefit of all parties.

So what of the claims by opponents that California can’t afford to build High Speed Rail? Let’s compare California to Britain. In size Britain is slightly smaller than California. Its population is slightly larger than California’s. When it comes to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Britain’s now is slightly greater than California’s. California’s economy has been growing, despite what its critics say, because of technical innovation and use of alternative energy which has led to economic growth while reducing emission of greenhouse gases. Britain has more and better rail passenger service than California. It has had passenger service running at up to 125 miles per hour since the 1970’s. Britain today has many train services which run over 100 miles per hour. There are local British trains that run up to 140 miles per hour sharing the tracks between London and the Chunnel which has international trains that run up to 186 miles per hour. But British trains generally run slower than trains in Europe.

Britain is planning to build 216 miles of high speed rail for multiple services for faster rail service north of the London area. This is called HS2 for High Speed 2. High Speed 1 are the tracks between London and the Chunnel for high speed rail service to the continent. The estimated costs for this project is around $76 billion dollars. There has been much criticism of this project in Britain, mostly from wealthy landowners, who’s land will be near or used for construction of HS2. But there is also strong support for HS2 in the cities in northern Britain which are looking for an economic stimulus they greatly need. Northern Britain is the home of the Industrial Revolution and is the original “Rust Belt”. Recently the new Prime Minister of Britain, Conservative Party Leader Theresa May affirmed her government’s support for the HS2 project. Needless to say $76 billion for 216 miles of High Speed Rail construction is more than $64 billion for 520 miles.

This nation as a whole since the 1970’s has been putting off construction and repair of infrastructure, including transportation largely in an attempt to avoid raising taxes. The result is the cost to catch up with repairs continues to grow. In California, voters have made it clear they want improved transportation with voter approved sale taxes in most urban areas for transportation. There is a desire by a majority of voters for alternatives to autos and road travel. There is also the desire to have economic stimulus which comes with new construction for transportation. A factor in California’s current economic growth is from the billions of dollars being spent for improved transportation now. Californians have also made it clear that they support reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases. Transportation is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Powerful vested interests are opposed to efforts to reduce greenhouse gases since this will cut into their profits. Recently efforts of lobbyists to weaken greenhouse gas emission legislation failed due to strong public support for the  current legislation. The opposition to High Speed Rail has far more to do with the profits of fossil fuels, than concern for the taxpayers or the cost of constructing rail service.