High Speed Rail, funding, and short term thinking

You may have seen on the news yesterday something about California’s High Speed Rail (HSR) program. A committee, mandated by the voters to review the program periodically, issued a report essentially stating that the program should be put “on hold” until the funding picture becomes clearer.

The California High Speed Rail blog has the initial news and analysis here, and today the official rebuttal from the HSR organizers, here. The rebuttal goes through the points, line by line, and throws facts in the mix. For example, while the peer review group states that the lack of full funding commitment is a major issue, the HSR people counter with the fact that no transportation program EVER is fully funded before starting.

What really bothers me about the peer review recommendation is that they seem to have no real grasp of the project timeline, and the funding timeline. And for a group of experts, that’s a problem.

Lets take a look at the real timeline:

The current HSR planning actually began in the 1980s. The line is scheduled to be done in the 2030’s.

That’s 50 years from start to finish….

And yet this peer review group is ready to throw things out because the current House of Representatives is hostile to rail and has blocked new federal funding…?

That makes no sense at all.

Construction is scheduled to begin this year, but nobody is expecting a train to start rolling until 2020 at best. That’s because it’s a huge, complicated project that is being done in segments and in phases. For example, while Bakersfield-Fresno is almost done with the engineering phase, San Jose-San Francisco is a few years away from being ready to go. Even if we had $50bn sitting around today, they couldn’t be laying track because the environmental and engineering reports aren’t ready, and there’s no magic button to speed of the mandatory process.

There will be no new federal money in 2012. We know that.

And that’s ok.

It’s sort of not needed in 2012. 2012 will see only the very start of construction, and there’s plenty on hand for that. There’s more than enough for 2013 as well. And you know what happens in 2013? A new house is elected, and with the way the politics in this country have been swinging over the past 5 years, one can imagine, indeed, one can expect, the house to swing left after the next cycle. And a left leaning house is more willing to support rail.

So what would be the point of slowing things down and putting things on hold? Again, it’s a 50 year project we’re talking about, if you stopped everything every time one variable was less than perfect….

I guess some would like that, because it would never get done, and there are plenty of people rooting for failure. Putting the project on hold isn’t a reasonable, prudent act to ensure the taxpayer’s money gets spent wisely. It’s a political ploy to kill a project that some don’t like.

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