LaHood: “We’re Not Giving Up on High-Speed Rail” in California

The Government Accountability Office says key details are missing from the California High-Speed Rail Authority's cost estimate. Image: ##http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-13-163T##GAO##

California Republicans from Fresno and Bakersfield put their foot down in a House hearing yesterday, rejecting the high-speed rail project whose initial segment would run between those two cities.

Rep. Jeff Denham, whose district includes Fresno, is the author of an amendment, passed in June, to ensure that no more federal money gets spent on the project. And Bakersfield Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Majority Whip in the House, suggested it may be time to “cut our losses” and stop spending money on the project.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, testifying before Congress on his 67th birthday, rushed to the defense of the proposed rail line. “Investing in rail is a priority for President Obama and this administration,” he said, “and most importantly, it’s a priority for the American people.”

The cost estimate has fluctuated between $33 billion and $98 billion, and is now set in the middle, at $68 billion.

The high-speed rail authority is seeking $38 billion in additional federal funds to fill in some of the gaping difference between the full cost and the $11.5 billion in state and federal funds already pledged.

As McCarthy pointed out, now is a difficult time to make the case for more federal spending on rail, when fiscal cliff negotiations will result in spending cuts and tax increases. Congress hasn’t appropriated a dime toward high-speed rail since the GOP gained control of the House in 2010. So far, the federal government has allocated just $3.5 billion to the project.

The state is trying to raise capital from pensions and sovereign wealth funds, but LaHood said Denham’s provision barring federal funding makes it harder to court investors. “As long as there’s language in bills that prohibit us from funding, we’re going nowhere,” LaHood asserted.

Denham said that was pretty much the idea. “The amendments are not meant to help you, we agree on that,” he said. “The amendments are meant to stop this project.”

Yesterday’s hearing was one of many opportunities Republicans have taken to publicly flog administration rail priorities. Their favorite whipping boy is Amtrak, but, as they showed yesterday, California high-speed rail will do just fine.

The Government Accountability Office weighed in yesterday, too, releasing a report questioning the soundness of the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s cost estimate.

The nicest thing the GAO said about the Authority’s estimate is that it doesn’t contain too many mathematical errors. That, and the cost estimates include major components of construction and operating costs, are adjusted for inflation, and are based on the most recent figures. But the GAO said there are some big problems.

The Authority doesn’t disclose how it plans “to adapt existing high-speed rail technology to the project in California.” In checking the Authority’s math, the GAO “could not verify how certain cost components, such as stations and trains, were calculated.” And the Authority conducted a “sensitivity analysis (assessing changes in key cost inputs)” – but only for the first 30 miles. Other important risk analyses haven’t been conducted.

Once the line is completed all the way from Sacramento to San Diego – still a big if – the Authority projects that annual ridership will range between 88 million and 117 million passengers by 2030. By replacing plane and car travel, California high-speed rail could prevent 3.2 million tons of carbon emissions a year.

  • That picture underscores a key problem with HSR. A very large portion of the population says “I will never ride it” and they aren’t lying, because it won’t be finished in their lifetime.

     “The great man is he who plants shade trees he will never sit under.”

  • Joe R.

    Well, at the rate we’re building HSR in this country a lot people alive will never ride on it. Maybe that’s a good reason to speed up the timetable considerably. If we wanted to, we could build out a world-class national HSR system is ten years. We just need funding and the political will to do so. We’re already 30 years behind the rest of the world in this area which is frankly an embarrassment.

  • Harold

    At the rate we’re going America will have a decent HSR network by 2300.

  • @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus  I have some hope that the next few years will expose changes that will reshape our priorities. Well, I’m not hoping for the crisis – I just hope that if we have a crisis that we react with vigor.

  • Joe B

     I still can’t quite believe they decided to add in that ginormous detour through Palmdale. Would it be so hard for Palmdale residents to hop on Metrolink and board the HS train in Santa Clarita?

  • To all those who say America is behind on this, take solace. You’re not Canada!

  • Anonymous

    I don’t blame them.  The current HSR plan calls for miles of expensive viaducts to be rammed through Bakersfield and other cities. The project itself has been a joke since its beginning with pie in the sky numbers that show more HSR boardings in Fresno than there are in Manhattan. 

  • Anonymous

    Denham and McCarthy are idiots. Fresno and Bakersfield stand the most to gain, by far.

  • Anonymous

    Denham and McCarthy are idiots. Fresno and Bakersfield stand the most to gain, by far.

  • The Transcontinental Railroad, stretching 1777 miles from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Sacramento, California, crossing two separate mountain ranges, was built in 6 years between 1863 and 1869. That’s 296 miles of track laid a year. Almost all the work was done manually with the aid of explosives for tunneling.

    150 years later, with the aid of advanced machinery, it will take us 15 years to lay 520 miles of tracks over mostly flat surface and one moderate set of mountains. That’s 35 miles of track per year.

    In 1876 there was a train called the Transcontinental Express that went from New York to San Francisco in 83 hrs and 39 minutes. It averaged 35 mph (with stops). Today the fastest train ride from SF to NYC takes 78 hours. It averages 37 mph (with stops).

    I find these numbers utterly astonishing. We can go to the moon but we can’t get ourselves organized to lay simple rail tracks as fast as people with pickaxes could. We can blow up entire cities in one fell swoop, but after 136 years, we can’t run trains much faster than the ones Ulysses S. Grant rode on. It simply boggles the mind.

  • Anonymous

    Unlike CHSR, the Transcontinental Railroad had private investors.
     

  • The longer the politicians spend bickering, the more it will cost.

  • Bruce Nourish

    If only there had been an experienced international HSR operator willing to build and operate it on an I-5 for less than $40 billion.

  • Abe

    Private investors with government-granted rights-of-way

  • Anonymous

    The government has already shelled out quite a bit on CHSRA and what have they got to show for it?  Zero, zip, zilch.  HSR promoters promised there would be private investors.  Denham and McCarthy are only trying to get them to make good on their promise. 

  • Anonymous

    If only there had been an experienced international HSR operator willing to build and operate it on an I-5 for less than $40 billion.

    You mean like SNCF

  • Anonymous

    There was. The French National Railway System made just such a proposal for an I-5 routing and were turned down.

  • voltairesmistress

    The biggest argument against Calif’s HSR is that it directs massive funding to solving the least pressing transportation problem California has — long distance travel between northern and southern parts of the state.  Our problems revolve around getting to work and getting around town and region nearby.  Investing that same massive amount (33 -98 billion and no real number in sight!) into subway and rail and other transit systems in each of the major urban regions would help people in tangible ways, as well as reduce carbon emissions.

  • vcs

    The big opposition to this project is not the Republicans, it’s the Democrats, specifically the congressional ones. Until D.C. develops some interest in significantly funding high speed rail, this project is going nowhere fast.

  • Tahoe

    If this thing is built, Caltrain will be unrecognizably pimped out and have a huge positive impact on a local scale.

    The SF to LA problem may not seem pressing but if jet fuel goes up 3-4x it will be a massive problem. And if we don’t build out the rail it will be too late, have fun on your 12 hour starlight journey.

  • Filamino

    p_chazz, people need to plan and design the rail project too. You think it takes one day, one week, even one year to design and engineer a huge project like this?! Fuck NO! If you can do it, let me see you do it. Didn’t think so…

    Ram through cities? Bullshit. More scare tactics and lies to prevent California from moving ahead in the 21st century transportation technology. As Tahoe and others said, just wait until oil jumps in price and end up paying hundreds of dollars just to go to LA, Bakersfield, etc. Then narrow minded people like you would be begging for an alternative to the car and plane. 

  • “The Transcontinental Railroad, stretching 1777 miles from Council
    Bluffs, Iowa, to Sacramento, California, crossing two separate mountain
    ranges, was built in 6 years between 1863 and 1869. That’s 296 miles of
    track laid a year. Almost all the work was done manually with the aid of
    explosives for tunneling.

    150 years later, with the aid of advanced machinery, it will take us
    15 years to lay 520 miles of tracks over mostly flat surface and one
    moderate set of mountains. That’s 35 miles of track per year.
    I find these numbers utterly astonishing. We can go to the moon but
    we can’t get ourselves organized to lay simple rail tracks as fast as
    people with pickaxes could.”

    That’s because we want to construct these things with a smaller fatality rate, and with safer tracks, and because they have to go through cities that already exist, meaning that we reimburse private individuals in exchange for tearing down their property.  All of that, which is what it means to be a civilized modern country, is really expensive and slow.

  • Miles of existing high speed rail routes (+120 miles per hour)

    China–3695 (with an additional 8496 under construction)
    Spain–1600
    Japan–1433
    France–1123
    UK–944
    Italy–805
    Germany–619
    United States–0
    (The US does boast one line, the Acela Express, that is capable of going 150 mph for short stretches of its run.)

    Of course none of these countries whose citizens zip around comfortably on high speed rail are modern and civilized with cities to build through and private property issues to contend with. If they were, they would’ve known that building high speed rail is expensive and slow, and they would’ve given up before they’d ever begun.

  • Tammymullins99

    This is ridlicious, the waste of investment thus far is unimaginable. Finish the damn project, support the effort than will benefit many many people and reduce emissions for the nation. Who’s not getting a pocket full of cash this year? How truly sad considering little ole state of Illinois got this done!

  • Anonymous

    Have you actually studied the plans? If you had, you would have known that it calls for 32 miles of viaducts, through downtown Bakersfield among other places. Most European systems build comparatively few miles of viaducts for cost and safety reasons. You would also know that CHSRA has made some very questionable decisions, like the 100 mile.plus detour through Palmdale as opposed to the more direct Grapevine route.

    The fact is that CHSRA has bungled this project from the get go, with its frequent turnovers of executive directors and wasteful squandering of funds with nothing to show for it. . But whenever amyone critiques CHSRA they are labeled a hater. Well, I.love trains. I am a.frequent rider on the Capitol Corridor and support the Train Riders Association of California, which is why I get so infuriated at watching HSR in California turn into the boondoggle it has become.

  • voltairesmistress

    Tahoe, I am reluctant to spend 100 billion dollars now in California for a “maybe” — the scenario of 400% jet fuel increase.  Engineers are designing planes that use much less fuel.  Other forms of transport are moving away from petroleum-based fuels.  Oil is still abundant and more fields are being discovered, albeit often in deep ocean areas. U.S. foreign oil consumption is down significantly year over year since about 2007. There will be no oil shortage for some decades to come.  There are many signs that “peak oil”, while possible, is probably a chimera.  Human ingenuity and the longer term inevitability of the end of availability of oil have combined to help humans innovate to avoid this disaster.  As for climate change . . . it seems to me we are too late on that.  The best we can do is reduce the amount of emissions to limit the damage, and get ready for some centuries of warmer climate. We can hope for the planet to cool sooner that way, but the cat’s out the bag on global warming, I’m afraid.

  • Traveller

    The HSR proponent purposefully frame this fight as one between gas guzzlers and environmentalists. Nothing could be further from the truth!
    I am all for a high-speed rail. But THIS PROJECT DOES NOT MAKE ANY SENSE! The cost is simply too much, and the potential benefit too little, to justify such a massive expenditure. And after it is built, it will perpetually beg Sacramento for more funds. Lacking those funds, they’ll cut the service; which will further drive down ridership; and the downward spiral will continue.

    Just look at CalTrain! They can’t run a decent service between SJ and SF, arguably one of the most heavily trafficked corridors. If they can’t run CalTrain properly, what are the chances they’ll be able to operate this HSR?

    Add to all this the fact that their estimate varies by over **30 BILLION DOLLARS** !! How in the world is that even possible?!?!?!

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