- Cost: The two-mile Oakland Bay Bridge extension that was completed in the fall of 2013, took 25 years from the time it was conceived, to complete, and is an example of a project managed by the State of California. The fact that it became a reality almost a generation later, is not the real tragedy. No, the real tragedy for California was the cost. Originally estimated at $1.3 billion in 1998, the cost exploded to $6.4 billion at completion, and will not be the final tally because there are weld problems that must be repaired. These costs have not been included in any budget. California’s “Rail Fantasy” was originally estimated to cost $63 billion, but its cost has already almost doubled as it now is estimated to exceed $100 billion. But in the land of fantasy, where a short bridge span can cost 5 times more than estimated, can we expect a 400-mile high-speed rail system that must dodge existing highways, homes, cities, farms and mountains, not including political and jurisdictional boundaries, to come with a final price of any less than $400 billion when it is done? And no one, not even Governor Brown has told us what it will cost to travel on this train. My bet is that air travel will be cheaper and faster.
- Technology: Elon Musk, the man behind the Tesla, has suggested that if California is going to spend good money on a new statewide transportation system, we should at least use new technology? A smart idea. Why are we planning to use a fixed rail system that incorporates technology from the 1850’s? We already have in place thousands of miles of flat road surface that can adapt to various forms of surface travel. Whether it is self-driven cars or a car-train with electronic connections that allows a user to hook up and un-hook at will, we should use the interstate infrastructure we already have, if this is possible. This is where our future travel technology should be exploring. An electric car-train, electronically guided over a wireless electronic grid—not over rigid steel tracks, would make a lot more sense for several reasons. The electric grid could be built into a third travel lane on Interstate 5, at a fraction of the cost of new rail. The expensive equipment–the rolling stock—that will travel over this electronic grid will be paid for by the public through their purchase of electric cars. The real tragedy will be discovered in twenty years after the state spends the $400 billion, only to find that travelers prefer to avoid this ancient boondoggle. Rail travel is one dimensional in that all trains have to travel in tandem. Multi-lane highways don’t have this restriction, a self-driving car could hook-up or un-hook from a car train or travel-directed program at any time. This technology is practically here today and is the type of transportation that Californians will likely prefer in their future.
- Safety vs. Speed: The spin is all about the high speed of the train. However, every high speed rail on the planet has had to limit the designed speed of the system to ensure public safety. There will be more than one train on the tracks. “High speed” rail will have to stop often to pick up revenue-paying passengers, or will have to slow behind those trains that do. Safety trumps speed. The trains will be slowed dramatically once the first high-speed collision occurs. And, let’s not forget that people from each county through which this make-believe system travels will want access to it. If you give up good farmland, re-route good country roads to build the project, you surely expect to have access to the damn thing when it’s done. This means trains will run sort-of-high speed between towns mainly at night, and not around curves. Public safety will dictate that the average speed will be reduced far below the advertised speed today.
The biggest safety issue may be the same one that the air travel industry deals with daily. That is protecting customers from luggage loaded with explosives. Once the TSA is filtering customers at every stop along the rail system, the “high” will definitely have to be removed from the title and the word boondoggle will be the only accurate description of California’s biggest flop.
- More Important State Needs: Inexpensive travel between San Francisco and LA is already available with air travel. If the purpose of “high speed” rail is improved state recognition, this is an extremely poor reason to spend hundreds of billions of dollars of tax-payer money. This money would be better used for education, health or housing needs? Travelling 400 miles for work never was an efficient use of a person’s time. Modern work solutions like live-work, teleconferencing, robotics and others have lessened the need to travel great distances daily. Travel between LA and SF today is more appropriate for trucking goods than people. Planes already fly over 600 mph between the two cities multiple times each day. And air travel can fly direct without stopping, saving considerable time. Planes don’t have to fly in tandem behind other planes, either. Sometimes fantasies should just be appreciated for what they are. Let’s deal with more pressing state problems like education, condition of our roads, and state debt, Governor.