High-speed rail needs a review before it’s too late 

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When a majority of California voters approved a $9.95 billion bond measure in 2008 to provide high-speed rail service between San Francisco and Los Angeles, they were persuaded by many touted benefits. Backers said it would reduce traffic congestion, pollution and greenhouse gases while providing a safe, affordable, fast alternative to driving or flying as well as result in 610,000 jobs, a total later raised to 1 million.

Unfortunately, it’s beginning to look like it was too good to be true.

The original cost estimate of $33 billion has nearly tripled to $98.5 billion and could reach $118 billion. Originally expected to be completed in 2020, it’s now not expected to be finished until 2034. Ridership was originally estimated at 55 million to 117 million annually, and is now projected to be closer to 23 million to 37 million. The cost for the two-hour, 40-minute trip was supposed to be $55, but is now expected to be $81 (in current dollars).

The high-speed rail website promises “conservatively” 600,000 full-time construction jobs (105,000 of them just from San Francisco to San Jose). Mayor Ed Lee has touted 128,000 new jobs in the Bay Area.

One person working five years has been counted as five separate new jobs. The estimate also counts twice as many “spinoff” jobs.

There is also doubt whether funding can be found to build it. About $25billion to 32 billion is needed to construct the first 300-mile segment, but only $6 billion in state and federal funding is expected to be available. That will only provide a 130-mile segment in the Central Valley, according to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, which calls the funding situation “highly problematic.” Private funding has proved illusory, presenting the possibility of a train to nowhere.

It’s no surprise that public support for the project has eroded with each new damaging revelation. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents in a recent Field poll said they would like the Legislature to again allow them to vote on it. And by a nearly 2-1 margin, they said they would reject it.

They might get their wish. State Sen. Doug LaMalfa plans to introduce legislation to place the project back on the ballot. In the meantime, Congressional Republicans have called for a Congressional Accountability Office study of the project’s viability and ridership and cost projections.

The train has not left the station. There’s still time to take a step back to reassess whether high-speed rail, as promising as it might be, continues to make economic sense. Or there is time to consider how these costs can be reined in to make sure high-speed rail will arrive with a price tag taxpayers can live with. California needs to invest in infrastructure while working to reduce emissions. However, taxpayers should not be forced to foot an ever-growing bill.

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