California High Speed Rail: Only Gilroy to Palmdale May be Affordable

The Project California voters will be asked to approve a nearly $10 billion bond issue in the November election as the beginning of funding for the a high-speed rail system intended to serve San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, Fresno, Riverside-San Bernardino and points between. Promoters claim that the remaining necessary funding (from $45 billion to $71 billion, depending upon who you believe) would come from the federal government and private investors. There is no federal program to provide such massive funding and private investment seems highly unlikely given the overwhelming prospects for financial failure.

The Issue Should insufficient funding be available, the Phase I San Francisco-Los Angeles line could be scaled back to new HSR infrastructure limited to the section between Gilroy and Palmdale (a skeletal system). This would make it possible for high-speed trains to complete the downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles route by operating at lower speeds over the existing-but-upgraded commuter rail and freight tracks between San Francisco and Gilroy and between Palmdale and Los Angeles (and perhaps to Anaheim).

Given the difficult financing situation, and considering how HSR construction costs vary for different segments, such a skeletal system could well emerge. For example, it appears that approximately one-half of Phase I construction costs are attributable to the San Francisco–Gilroy and Anaheim–Los Angeles–Palmdale segments. Hence, it is possible that the Gilroy–Palmdale section of the line could be built for between $15 billion and $22 billion, depending on the extent of capital cost overruns. It would be possible to fund such a truncated line from the currently hoped-for financing sources (state bond, matching federal funding and private investment). However, as indicated in Due Diligence Financial Projections obtaining this even this amount of funding is likely to be difficult.

Further, the Authority has indicated that the earliest segments to be built will be in the San Joaquin Valley. The first segment includes “development of a test track from Bakersfield to Merced, regardless of whether the Altamont or Pacheco Alignment is selected. Thus, the Central Valley is served between Bakersfield and Merced for either alternative.”

Consequently, events could develop in such a way that genuine HSR service would operate only between the peripheries of the Los Angeles and Bay Areas, namely Gilroy and Palmdale, meaning that California would have the form but not the substance of high-speed rail. The speeds on such a skeletal system would be faster than current rail services, but would fall far short of HSR standards and would provide little or no competition to airlines between the two major markets.

Because the existing Bay Area and Los Angeles rail lines are heavily utilized, the CHSRA would need to add track capacity, electrify the lines, and enhance grade-crossing protections. Even with such upgrading the HSR trains would need to mesh with the operating schedules and travel times of the commuter trains.

The skeletal system would be able to provide service between San Francisco and Los Angeles on a non-stop schedule of up to 5 hours and 30 minutes and between San Francisco and Anaheim with a stop in Los Angeles on a schedule of up to 6 hours and 15 minutes.

Another factor relevant to the Palmdale–Los Angeles segment is that the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) envisages construction of a maglev train system. Plans include maglev lines from the Los Angeles International Airport to the Palmdale airport. Such a development could exacerbate financial challenges for the HSR line, resulting in truncating even the Phase I operation into Los Angeles. This could result in Palmdale being the southern terminus for the HSR system with passengers transferring between it and the maglev system.

Adapted from The California High Speed Rail Proposal: A Due Diligence Report By Wendell Cox & Joseph Vranich

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