High Speed Rail is dead. Stick a fork in it

Most state projects for High Speed Rail (HSR), including California, assume they will get major funding from the federal government. This is no longer true.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, which is controlled by Democrats, recently voted to fund HSR by a token $100 million in FY 2012. Congress and the country are in a foul mood now when it comes to financing speculative, extremely expensive projects. This mood is due to the current nasty recession and, I think, the Solyndra bankruptcy, which has poisoned the well for all manner of federal funding.

Congress has already committed $10.5 billion for HSR with little in the way of actual construction to show for it and clearly wishes to give no more in the way of substantive funding. That miniscule $100 million in funding may get cut further.

This is seriously bad news for California’s already staggering plans to build HSR between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The state website for the project says point-blank: “Federal matching funds are expected to finance a significant portion of the construction cost”, but it’s clear now that money won’t be coming. The California High Speed Rail (CAHSR) project was assuming it would get billions in federal funding and faces the near-impossible task of finding the money elsewhere. The state can’t afford it and private investors are leery of the ever-escalating costs and thus the diminishing probability of a profit, should CAHSR ever finally be built.

The Los Angeles to San Francisco high speed rail line was originally budgeted at $43 billion. Not surprisingly – especially for the cynics among us – those estimates have risen and now range from $48.6 – $67.3 billion. Those who made the low original estimates appear gobsmacked at the rise in costs. I mean, who could have predicted such a thing?

The Community Coalition on High Speed Rail puts potential costs much higher, at a whopping $116 billion (PDF) plus another $240 billion in bond payments over 30 years.  Ouch. They note that the $9 billion authorized by California taxpayers comes with the express proviso that the system operator, not the State of California, would be able to service the debt load.

The first proposed leg for CAHSR construction is the 190 miles from Bakersfield to Merced, estimated at $10 – $13.9 billion. Some urban grumps have called this a line that goes from nowhere to nowhere. But urbanites aren’t the only grumpy ones. Central Valley residents are also fighting to stop the line, and their resistance could easily tie things up in court for years.

HSR must be constructed on new tracks, and where roads cross it, must go under or above ground (so it doesn’t have to slow down). That’s why it’s so expensive. It also can’t handle freight cars, as they weigh too much. So, if it is only partially constructed or if somehow it’s completed but runs at a loss, then it could be a very large white elephant indeed.

High Speed Rail supporters are looking for a miracle, but it’s difficult to see where the tens of billions they need will be found.

(crossposted from CAIVN)