Rail debate’s on wrong track

The California High-Speed Rail Authority last week released the latest round of environmental documents and cost estimates for the first leg of the bullet-train project. The reaction from the California press was something between alarm and righteous fury.

Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, who has made something of a professional specialty of bashing high-speed rail, weighed in with yet another cranky condemnation of California’s “high-speed rail mess.” He warned Gov. Jerry Brown to stop funding or “‘the train to nowhere’ will haunt him forever.” Spooky.

The column attracted hundreds of comments by the usual crew who try to win every argument with the word “libtard.”

The news report that seemed the most attention was an Associated Press story, titled “California High-speed Rail Cost Soars.” It’s true the last time the authority’s early estimates for the “backbone” section, between Merced and Bakersfield, were about $7 billion. The new more detailed estimates range from $10 billion to $14 billion. Likewise, the estimated cost of the whole project is expected to climb as well. Earlier figured as a $40-something-billion system, a new October estimate in the fall could hit $60 billion; some critics are even predicting $80 billion.

To be fair, everyone expected the cost estimates to go up as the environmental documents were refined and the demands of the communities along the route piled up. And part of the “soaring” is due to the fact the CHSRA is presenting an array of possible alignments, some expensive, some very expensive. But the most expensive options on the menu are just that: options.

What seems to get left out of a lot of these stories—and always gets left out by the more ideological opponents like Walters—is the cost of not building high-speed rail.

The authority estimates high-speed rail will save the state about $100 billion in costs that would otherwise have to be spent on: 3,000 miles of new highway lanes, five new airport runways and 90 new airport gates—infrastructure needed to keep pace with California’s growing population.

That’s setting aside high-speed rail’s benefits to mass-transit systems up and down the state, the economic development benefits for the Central Valley towns that get downtown rail stations, reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, and the impacts of $5-a-gallon gasoline.

Even U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gets that. “Our country is so shortsighted—our highways are jammed … and we are spending so much wasted money hauling people in airplanes for 300 miles or less, which is terribly inefficient,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle last week. “You have to look at things other than the raw numbers of how much it costs. How much does it save?”

You didn’t hear that argument being made, by Reid or anyone else, in the Bee last week. You just heard about “soaring” costs.

At the risk of sounding libtarded: If the choice was between spending $60 billion or $80 billion on high-speed rail and spending nothing, that would be one thing. We could just weigh that price tag against the other supposed benefits of high-speed rail and make a decision.

And if you want to make an argument for spending absolutely nothing on transportation infrastructure for the next 20 years, Bites is all ears (and teeth). Let’s not pretend that spending nothing is a real choice. The alternative to building high-speed rail may cost $100 billion. It may cost more or less, but it will cost a lot. Let’s at least have an honest comparison of those costs before we pull the plug on high-speed rail.