That high-priced high-speed rail


Even Democrats in the state Legislature are starting to get nervous about continuing the high-speed rail program. After all, the price has gone up to close to $100 billion. That's such a vast sum of money; the state can't possibly afford that, right?

Well, let's think about that and put it in a little historical perspective.

The Golden Gate Bridge was constructed during the worst years of the Great Depression. Cost in today's dollars: $1.2 billion. That's for one bridge.

BART was built in the 1960s. Cost in today's dollars: $6.4 billion. For a transit system serving (at the time) three counties.

The California Aqueduct was also built in the 1960s. Cost in today's dollars: $31 billion.

I can't find good figures on the historical cost of building the California freeway system, but in 2006 dollars, highway construction runs between $3 million and $19.5 million per lane-mile. That is, a four-line highway costs between $12 million and almost $80 million a mile. If you take just the ten biggest highways in the state (a total of 3,547 miles) and figure a middle-of-the-road average of $40 million a mile, building the backbone of the state's freeway system would cost $141 billion today.

High-speed rail, of course, gets cars off the road, reduces pollution and fossil-fuel dependence, and offers a much better transportation experience for people moving around California.

Sounds like a bargain to me.


massively in deficit, and weren't trying to provide welfare benefits for everyone here who don't or can't work. Back then there were far less public sector employees and so the current unfunded pensions and healthcare timebomb wasn't an issue.

I like HSR too but I'm not sure we can afford it. Perhaps we can privatize it to a European rail company and use Chinese money and knowhow to build it quicker, cheaper and better.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 09, 2011 @ 12:41 pm

We also weren't burdened by two pointless wars. And we didn't need to spend as much on social welfare because the wealth in our society was more evenly divided; there weren't as many super-rich (and even the super-rich paid taxes) and the middle class was much larger. But don't forget -- the total size of the U.S. economy has DOUBLED in the past 20 years. We can afford this stuff.

Posted by tim on Dec. 09, 2011 @ 2:44 pm
Posted by Guest on Dec. 09, 2011 @ 2:51 pm

Unrealistic ridership expectations along with the NIMBYs on the Peninsula have made it much more expensive than it was. I'm a supporter of HSR too - but the forces aligned against it, including the fossil fuels-based industrial complex, are too strong. We'll prolly never see a good, strong high speed rail system in this country - at least where it's needed (SF-LA, DC-BO, SEA-PDX) and that is to our detriment.

The days of big grand investments which paid off even bigger in the future seem to be over. Yet another symptom (or cause) of the decline of the United States.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 09, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

I'd love to see HSR between SF-LA, but realistically, I would think that spending the same amount of money on local transportation improvements would be far more productive. Upgrade the existing rail line between SF-LA to a faster conventional train and spend the balance on expanding BART, Light Rail, LA Metro and Capital Corrider services. Then remove NIMBY obstacles to high density development around transit corriders and you will do far more to "get cars of the road, reduce pollution and fossil fuel dependence".

Posted by Guest666 on Dec. 09, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

It has some severe problems throughout it's route and, in any event, is run by the freight rail companies and so not suitable to higher speeds.

And throwing cash at local transit hasn't given us a good system. We have a dysfunctional Muni, a near bankrupt CalTrain and a cat's cradle of bus companies. Only BART works well.

We need HSR but am not sure we can afford it unless it is privatized.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 09, 2011 @ 3:10 pm

Redmond - because you so staunchly support gigantic benefits for public employees (fine) we have no money to make big bets on our future. Money is finite.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 09, 2011 @ 3:58 pm

Holy crap Redmond! Is this REALLY your argument? You're saying that we shouldn't feel squeamish about spending 100 billion on HSR because all we could get with that money instead is about 80 GGBs or 13ish more BART systems? This is the most deluded thing I've seen in a long time. Don't forget that things like BART benefit WORKING CLASS people, whereas HSR, because of what would be the prohibitive cost of tickets and accommodations on the other end of the line, would mostly benefit the RICH.

It never ceases to amaze me how you people want to support these public unions and then throw a hissy fit when people balk at the cost of any public endeavor. If you REALLY want to convince people to have government do so much, shouldn't you want it to run ass efficiently as possible? If this was the 1970s, and we had the technology, we could knock this thing out for less than 20 Billion (in 2011 dollars). What's changed since then? Two things: environmental regulation (which most people don't regret) and PUBLIC EMPLOYEE UNIONS.

Posted by Juan Eduardo on Dec. 09, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

I think what everyone says here is true. We pay more today because of pensions, environmental regulations, etc. And the money would also be well spent on local transportation improvements, which would also benefit working class folks.

Although the heavy price tag is daunting, I still think that now more than ever is the time to start building this thing. I think there is a strong statement to be made along with the real life benefits. For me, being able to connect the Central Valley to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sacramento in a more efficient way is the big seller. If you tried to drive this last Thanksgiving between these areas, you know exactly what I mean. The travel time was doubled because of traffic and this will only get worse as our population grows- this is fact. I also believe that HSR stations will be a catalyst for more transit-oriented development in the sprawled Valley cities. Furthermore, I think is is a technological achievement that the United States, and specifically California, should accomplish.

We should definitely explore how we can keep the costs low, but I think it would be better to really focus our energy on those policy areas that are the reason we say we can't afford HSR such as pension reform, better tax policy, etc.


Posted by Guest on Dec. 09, 2011 @ 4:59 pm

To be successful, high-speed rail must run through a region of very high population density, so as to make possible frequent service. That's why it is so successful in Japan, China, and many parts of Europe. But most of the US simply doesn't have that kind of population density (thank goodness!)
If high-speed rail is to succeed in the US, the place to try it first is obviously the Boston-Washington corridor, which is heavily populated pretty much from end to end, over 400 miles. But what exists there now is the anemic Acela. Let's put our government seed money into the Northeast Corridor high-speed rail; if that works, we can consider places like LA-SF, which are dense only at the ends and pretty empty in the middle.

Posted by lslerner on Dec. 09, 2011 @ 8:18 pm

Who does Tim Redmond think he's talking to: the tea party. GGB was budgeted at $30M, was financed entirely by A.P. Giannini's Bank of Italy, was built ahead of schedule and came in under budget. What does quoting that project of the 30s in today's dollars have to do with anything. Ridiculous.

BART was a pricey project that never took one car off the road...the freeways are choked with an exponentially increasing number of cars. Pollution has skyrocketed since BART was built (anybody for a few "Spare the Air" days in a row).


Posted by DanC on Dec. 09, 2011 @ 10:50 pm

Air is actually cleaner now when you account for the increase in population. And it's not difficult to measure what the increase in both air pollution and cars on the road would be without BART - both would be astronomically higher.

Tim was quoting a cost of the GGB in today's dollars counting for inflation. So yes - it was more than a billion dollar project.

And yes - the north-south aqueduct. He's talking about that. Would you prefer farmers in the Central Valley be without water from northern California?

YOU'RE the one talking to the tea party here. Targeted government investment is as necessary, if not more, than it was 70 years ago.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 09, 2011 @ 11:06 pm

The CALIFORNIA AQUEDUCT??? What the hell does than project have to do with public transportation??? Are you suggesting gondolas as a means of travel?

"High-speed rail, of course, gets cars off the road, reduces pollution and fossil-fuel dependence, and offers a much better transportation experience for people moving around California." What high-speed rail? Where? What road? "It offers..." (present tense??). Yuk!! When do you audition for Fox News, TR?

Meantime, I'm waiting for the next time the variable-speed faultline fixed rail boondoggle comes to a I can vote against it as in the past.

Posted by DanC on Dec. 09, 2011 @ 11:18 pm

Sorry for the multiple postings here, Twitch I guess.

Guest: Pollution when you account for population?? How do you measure that. PPM CO2 per person?? You are more mixed up than TR.

To say how much something might have been is fallacious logic. You have no idea how much anything might have been.

I KNOW he was quoting the price of GGB in today's inflated dollars. My question is: Why did he do that?

Who's talking about farmers and water, Guest? You alone, it looks like.

Targeted government investment? Is there any other kind?

Posted by DanC on Dec. 09, 2011 @ 11:27 pm

I agree with two posts here: this project is designed to serve a very small, specific demographic; and the $$ would be much better spent creating a well-coordinated, affordable, regional transit system.

How many people, on the outside, would HSR serve in a day? 10,000? How many more could be served if we spent money on efficient, reliable, fast bus service--such as that in Curitiba, Brazil--linked to BART and CalTrain? Right now, except for a few MUNI lines, such as the 1 California, people using the system are typically quite young; quite old; or visibly destitute. Let's create a system that really serves people's needs, and thus really gets cars off the road. Now we have a system that's expensive, burdensome, and ridiculous, with bus connections that should but do not connect, often because each municipality views its transit system as its own little fiefdom. We need a coordinated, intelligent system--this is as much a matter of sound planning and scheduling as anything else--so that a person travelling, for example, from Hayward to Burlingame doesn't need to circumscribe half the bay via BART to get there.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 10, 2011 @ 7:34 am

Right on, Guest.

I didn't mean to convey I was against public transportation or against a Los Angeles-Sacramento corridor. My objection to the presently-conceived system is that it is way-obsolete technology. Let's face it, fixed rail is a 19th century phenomenon. By 1955 massive diesel engines were a relic of the past. France and Japan built their bullet trains 50 years ago and those rattly systems were obsolete as they were built.

We need new technology: hover craft, water corridors, light rail or monorail, something. As Guest says, we need intelligence first.

Posted by DanC on Dec. 10, 2011 @ 4:22 pm

I am pretty sure that Tim just posted this to throw a token towards being pro (anything) development.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 10, 2011 @ 10:11 am

Yes, some people will choose HSR rather than drive, but the more dramatic shift will be away from inefficient short-hop commuter air travel on trips of less than 450 miles in distance. Those flights burn most of their fuel just getting off the ground and gaining altitude. They don't have time to cruise efficiently before they come right back down for landing.

Cars will still be useful for local commuting, but the rechargeable batteries will never be satisfactory for longer trips. Nevertheless, local light rail, like BART, will continue to gain popularity as gasoline prices continue to rise.

Just the same, the regional HSR will have a bigger impact on airlines for trips 100~450 miles in distance than on highway traffic.

Posted by Willie Green on Dec. 10, 2011 @ 10:55 am

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Posted by tiger on Apr. 10, 2013 @ 7:48 am