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California

Cynthia Ward
High-Speed Train Wreck
California’s multi-billion-dollar bullet-train boondoggle was predictable—and predicted.
3 August 2011

In October 2008, Joseph Vranich, a preeminent authority on high-speed rail in the United States, testified before a hearing of California’s State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. Vranich, the best-selling author of Supertrains and a 40-year advocate of high-speed rail, had come to offer his thoughts on the state’s plan to build a high-speed rail line from Orange County to San Francisco. “This is the first time I am unable to endorse a high-speed rail plan,” he told the senators, saying that he found the California High Speed Rail Authority’s work to be “the poorest I have ever seen.”

It’s fair to say that the vast majority of California voters never heard what Vranich had to say. Instead, they relied on faulty and unverified information on their ballot statements, where high-speed rail proponents touted the environmental advantages and fiscal benefits of the state’s plan. Less than a month after his testimony, voters approved Proposition 1A, authorizing Sacramento to sell a few billion dollars in bonds for a project most experts, now including the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Office and the University of California, say will cost tens of billions of dollars more than the official $43 billion estimate.

With his 2008 testimony now posted on YouTube, more people are listening to Vranich, who predicted just about everything that came to pass, including that the trains would be slower than promised, carry fewer people than rail authorities claimed, and cost much more than officials would admit. “I would like to see high speed rail built,” Vranich told senators. “But not this boondoggle.” Almost three years on, the High Speed Rail Authority has spent $630 million—and the project hasn’t even broken ground yet. The vast majority of those dollars went to consultants and studies.

Vranich explained in 2008 that while high-speed rail “holds great promise in certain sections of the country,” the California HSRA’s work was so deficient that “if the current plan is implemented it has the potential of setting back the cause of high-speed rail throughout the United States.” The Authority, Vranich argued, had learned nothing from failed projects in Texas and Florida (with another failure in the making in the Sunshine State), and aborted plans in Los Angeles and San Diego. The L.A. and San Diego projects had been undone by overly optimistic ridership estimates, pie-in-the-sky budgeting, and a callous disregard for local environmental impacts. The HSRA was repeating all of those mistakes, Vranich argued, “as if they never read a single page of history.” His recommendation: dissolve the HSRA and transfer its power to a different state agency.

“High speed rail in California may be salvageable after all of this poor work, but someone else must be in charge,” Vranich said. “If the authority is unable to conduct studies that have credibility, how will they ever effectively deliver a mega construction project on time and within budget?” His argument tracks closely with a May 2011 report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which also suggests that the High-Speed Rail Authority be dismantled.

Vranich skewered every aspect of the HSRA’s proposal. He insisted that passenger estimates were wildly inflated—64 percent higher than those developed by the Federal Railroad Administration and by independent studies from the University of California at Berkeley’s Transportation Center, as well as a thorough report by the Reason Foundation. “The authority’s projection of 117 million annual intercity passengers plus commuters is so far from reality that I have to call it what it is—science fiction,” Vranich wrote in his testimony. Most studies use population density to project ridership, but as a story in California Watch noted last month, “if the measure is population density, Florida and Ohio would be fertile ground as well. Both of those states rejected billions in federal aid for bullet trains, fearing they just couldn’t make the projects pencil out.”

The state’s HSRA assumes a bullet train from Los Angeles to the Bay Area would attract vastly greater ridership among 50 million car-loving Californians than has been achieved in Spain, Germany, France and Japan, where rail travel is commonplace. Perhaps an even better example domestically is Amtrak’s estimated ridership for its Northeast Corridor. “Fifty million people already inhabit the region served by Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor,” Albrecht Engel, Vice-President of Amtrak HSR, told an audience of high-speed rail boosters this spring. “The population is expected to grow to 70 million by 2050.” Even so, Amtrak anticipates carrying just 18 million passengers annually on its high-speed line in the busiest rail-transit corridor in the United States.

Vranich three years ago also dismissed the Authority’s $43 billion cost projection, predicting the real cost to be closer to $60 to $80 billion, not including bond repayment. Since then, costs for the project have escalated far beyond what voters were promised in 2008. “The claims of profitability could not conceivably be credible, under the most optimistic assumptions,” Vranich said. In the unlikely event that the HSRA’s projections were accurate, the trains likely wouldn’t generate enough profit to pay back the bonds anyway—much less build additional rail segments, as planned. The Legislative Analyst verified Vranich’s prediction in its May report, which concluded, “If the cost of building the entire Phase 1 system were to grow as much as the revised HSRA estimate for the 100-mile segment [between Fresno and Bakersfield] construction would cost about $67 billion.” However, the LAO added: “This extrapolation of costs... is based on the cost increase for a relatively straight-forward and uncomplicated segment of the proposed rail line. It is possible that some of the more urban segments could be even more significantly underestimated.”

Finally, Vranich debunked the HSRA’s claim that riders could make the trip from Anaheim to San Francisco in a remarkable two hours and 40 minutes—noting that the required average speed of 197 miles per hour is a feat yet to be accomplished anywhere in the world. In fact, train speeds in urban areas would be limited to around 60 miles per hour, due to safety and noise regulations. “It is unclear that any train redesigned to meet U.S. safety requirements and crashworthiness standards, which will make it heavier, can also meet the CHSRA speed and performance requirements,” Vranich said.

Declaring that voters were deceived in 2008, Republican state senator Doug La Malfa sponsored Senate Bill 22, legislation that would end bond purchases on January 1, 2012—thus reducing the state’s indebtedness to the amount contracted by the High Speed Rail Authority before that date. La Malfa noted that the High Speed Rail Authority still hasn’t submitted an acceptable business plan, despite a legislative requirement to do so before the November 2008 election. Putting an end to bond purchases would help prevent future damage to a fiscally imperiled state.

The Vranich testimony video certainly lends credence to La Malfa’s effort. Sadly, Bill 22 was voted down in committee in May, but it’s eligible for reconsideration. Perhaps it’s time for Joseph Vranich to reprise his appearance in Sacramento.

Cynthia Ward is a writer in Anaheim, California and a regular contributor to Red County.

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