Stanford weighs in on high-speed rail

May 26, 2011, 3:05 a.m.

The California high-speed rail project has been a hotly contested issue at the state level since voters passed the nearly $10 billion California Proposition 1A in 2008. As the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) moves closer to beginning construction on the project, members of the Stanford community, students and experts alike, are weighing in on the prospects and perils the high-speed rail could face.

The rail line, if constructed, will shuttle riders from downtown San Francisco to the Los Angeles/Anaheim area in two hours and 40 minutes, taking a route through California’s Central Valley. Future plans aim to expand the line, allowing it run from Sacramento to San Diego. High-speed rail has had great success in Europe, but no lines yet exist in the United States.

Funding for the project has trickled in slowly and is being matched by the state of California. According to CHSRA media contact Rachel Wall, the rail authority received $3.5 billion in federal funds, which will enable the construction of a segment of rail in the Central Valley.

Following the government’s investment in infrastructure, currently underway with the CHSRA, the line will be licensed to a private operator who will be required to run trains at profit. Wall said there is significant demand from various parties to run the line.

“The high-speed rail industry and suppliers and operators have been literally knocking on our doors weekly to stay apprised of what is the United States’ only true high-speed rail system,” she said.

The plan to begin in the Central Valley has met several criticisms, most prominently the idea that the state is building a rail to nowhere. The first rail line will cover a 150-mile segment from Merced, Calif., to Bakersfield, Calif., with the objective of targeting riders in the Madera and Fresno areas along the way.

Graduate School of Business professor Alain Enthoven co-authored a study titled “The Financial Risks of California’s High-Speed Rail Project,” which points to miscalculations in the CHSRA plan, including incorrectly estimated infrastructure cost and rider demand.

“Both our state and federal governments are suffering from dangerously large and intractable deficits, and we shouldn’t be looking for new ways to spend money unless they are clearly good investments. CHSR is a loser,” Enthoven wrote in email to The Daily.

Another key concern is what would happen if rail revenue cannot meet costs. Many critics fear that the state will end up subsidizing the train, a measure forbidden by Prop 1A. Citing experts from Amtrak and around the world, Enthoven’s study concludes, “the proposed project cannot financially function without a legally forbidden operating subsidy.”

Still, CHSRA insists that the law will be upheld.

“The bond measure authorized $9 billion for high-speed rail infrastructure construction in California,” Wall said. “That is it. That is the only state money that is going to go toward this project.”

Other supporters insist that precedent indicates the demand will be there. High-speed rail proponent Daniel Jacobson ’12, along with CHSRA, pointed to European high-speed trains as supporting evidence. The populations there depend on rails like the AVE line from Madrid to Barcelona, which is similar to the one from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Before Prop 1A, the state government conducted feasibility studies to determine whether the high-speed rail was the best option to alleviate growing population transportation demand. Many supporters of the project agree with the state’s decision that high-speed rail is a more economic option than building additional freeways and airports.

“When you look at the economic future of the state, I don’t think there’s a project that’s more crucial,” Jacobson said.

He noted that the economic stimulus from the project’s construction, transportation and job creation made the project a must for the state. He also pointed to the minimized environmental impact of trains relative to cars or planes. CHSRA hopes to reduce dependence on roads and airways as well.

“We do anticipate making it an enticing, competitive option to pull cars off the freeways,” Wall said.

She added that “California has hundreds if not thousands of flights every day” from Northern California to Southern California.

Enthoven, however, saw the project as a poor way to invest in the state’s future.

“It is being and will be paid for by cuts in support for education,” he said. “As to which is more important for our future, there is no contest, not even close.

“Maybe in the 1960s we could afford a moon shot, but not now with health care over 17 percent of the GDP and growing,” he added.

Jacobson, on the other hand, insisted that the state needs transportation infrastructure and cannot wait much longer.

“Yes, it’s tough to fund something that big right now, but the cost of doing nothing is not zero,” he said. “To expand highways and airports to handle the same capacity when California hits 60 million people by 2050 is going to be two, three, four times the cost.”

Construction is set to begin on the Central Valley line in September 2012.

Login or create an account