Tuesday, March 30, 2010

First Rule - Don't improve a bad proposal - Scrap High Speed Rail

In today's Sacramento Bee - Lisa Schweitzer an assistant professor in the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development, tried to make the case that the current proposal to build a high speed rail link between Northern and Southern California will hurt the poor.  She argued the new wonder train  "could leave the state's working poor and most transit-dependent residents with fewer travel options than they now have, while the affluent travel on a gold-plated, luxury high-speed rail system."  Well duh.  But her point misses the point of this boondoggle.  Improve high speed rail and it is still hugely expensive and does not meet the needs of most Californians.

Professor Schweitzer suggests that the original bid for the new system could double to an awesome $18 billion.  And that in order to recoup costs the prices charged for a ride on this system would be very expensive.   For example, the professor suggests that a ticket from San Francisco to LA would be in the range of $500 - quite a premium for what it costs to drive or to fly. I think her estimates are nothing if not conservative. The professor offers a lot of dos and don'ts to make this turkey less regressive.  But had she thought a bit more carefully, she might have suggested that we scrap this albatross and look to alternatives which would a) be cheaper and b) better meet the needs of all Californians.

The problem with high speed rail is like a lot of other big expense governmental expenditures - the initial estimates for these projects are always way under the final costs AND they actually limit the choices for individuals.  A high speed rail system is good only for people who want to go from one terminal to another at the times that the train wants to go.

A few weeks ago Randall O'Toole had a superb article in the WSJ Saturday edition. He suggested that it would be much smarter to work on "robocars" which for about $2000 per vehicle could be released to allow drivers to get into their cars - choose a destination and not have to drive there.  Because roads of the future would be controlled by computers - transit speeds would actually improve.  Plus, those who wanted to have the extra capabilities of these robocars would be able to pay for them and those who did not want the new technology would be able to choose other forms of transportation.

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