Why High Speed Rail Shouldn't Ride In California

Wendell Cox weighs the true costs over the reported costs of creating a high speed train system for cities between San Diego and Sacramento. He offers opposition to a very expensive and likely underused project.

Wendell Cox served on the Los Angeles County transportation commission from 1977 to 1985. Though he could be called a general proponent of the idea of high speed rail, he says it's not the right choice for California.

At issue in his opinion piece, published in the Orange County Register, is a proposed high speed rail system spanning most of the state, hitting major cities like San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento. He argues that the estimated costs are far below what the actual costs would total. In his argument he cites the costs of other large transportation porjects that exceeded cost estimations like the L.A. Metropolitan Transit Authority's Blue Line light rail, a project his commission oversaw, which resulted in costs more than three times the estimations. He also summons the spectre of Boston's excessively drawn out and expensive Big Dig.

The main argument stems from his comparison of the proposed California project and another high speed rail project running in between Washington D.C. and New York. He argues that demand is just not there on the east coast and that the west coast project is relying on an unrealistically high ridership to cover the enormous costs.

Full Story: Taking taxpayers for a ride



What is the real goal of high speed rail in California?

Wendell Cox has some well known opinions in the area of mass-transport, and I am always wary whenever he starts using "statistics". In this opinion piece he avoids relying on dubious numbers (he recognizes the uncertainty in any kind of forecast) and makes a number of extremely valid points.

In theory, passenger rail transportation can reasonably compete with air travel in the 500-1000 KM distance range, but that is based on the assumption that travelers spend a relatively long amount of time getting to and from the airports on both ends, whereas a rail trip is from central area to central area. That is, the implicit assumption is that the airports are not centrally located whereas rail stations presumbably will be. In the California context, this is a huge assumption: LA certainly does not have one (or even a few) "well-defined" central areas, and even the Bay Area has numerous attraction centers. I must say that I agree with Wendell on this one - high speed rail is not what California needs at the moment.

All of this begs the question: what is the real goal of high speed rail promoters in California (beyond the obvious interests of those who are directly involved in the marketing of the technology itself)? If the goal is to encourage a redensification of California's cities and a greater rationalization of the way people get around, perhaps this goal should be made more explicitly. In my opinion, it would be more reasonable to begin by developing more efficient *regional* mass transit services than plunging into intra-city high speed rail. There are far more people moving about *within* California's urban regions every day than there are people moving *between* them!

Prepare for the AICP Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245
Planetizen Courses image ad

Planetizen Courses

Advance your career with subscription-based online courses tailored to the urban planning professional.
Starting at $16.95 a month
Wood necklace with city map

City Necklaces

These sweet pendants are engraved on a cedar charm with a mini map of selected cities. The perfect gift for friends and family or yourself!
Book cover of Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning

Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning

Featuring thought-provoking commentary and insights from some of the leading thinkers and practitioners in the field.