NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 6, 2010

Lustrous bullet trains skim through the Central Valley at speeds topping 200 miles per hour, shuttling passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in less than three hours (and nobody has to remove his shoes).  Such a vision, recently touted by the Obama administration as new is quite musty, says Liam Julian, a Hoover Institution research fellow. 

The bullet train dreamscape emerged in 1980, when Gov. Jerry Brown announced that the state would immediately begin feasibility studies of high-speed rail.  In 1982, the Legislature approved $1.25 billion in bonds to finance a bullet train connecting San Diego and Los Angeles, and though that project was doomed, its inceptive ideas were not, says Julian: 

  • The California High Speed Rail Authority was formed in 1996.
  • In November 2008, California voters approved Proposition 1A, a $10 billion bond measure as a down payment on the Los Angeles to San Francisco portion of a new high-speed rail system.
  • With that vote, and with the Obama administration's promise of $2.3 billion, plans for high-speed rail in the Golden State have come roaring back.  

Unfortunately, so have high-speed rail's problems, says Julian.  For example, no one knows how much it will cost: 

  • New numbers put the price of the Anaheim to San Francisco segment alone at $42.6 billion.
  • California expects to receive about $18 billion from the federal government; so far, Washington has donated $2.3 billion.
  • The state also expects to receive $12 billion from private investors, but the rail authority has provided scant evidence that it can raise that amount.  

Also, projected ridership numbers are unreliable: 

  • The High Speed Rail Authority's projected annual ridership number has fluctuated over the years from 40 million to nearly 100 million.
  • A September 2008 report from the Reason Foundation concluded that ridership projections at that time were "absurdly high" and "could well rank among the most unrealistic projections produced for a major transport project anywhere in the world."  

Source: Liam Julian, "High-speed train to nowhere," San Francisco Chronicle, April 2, 2010. 

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