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Price tag swells for high-speed rail

Original post made on Nov 1, 2011

The cost of California's proposed high-speed-rail system, originally pegged at about $36 billion, has nearly tripled since the project was presented to voters in 2008, according to a business plan that the agency charged with building the new system released Tuesday.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, November 1, 2011, 5:59 PM

Comments (21)

Posted by USA
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Nov 1, 2011 at 10:58 pm

It should be great fun to go back through the old MV Voice articles to find all those grandiose statements from Eshoo and other wonks about how wonderful an idea HSR was and how they would contain costs.

Posted by speechless
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Nov 1, 2011 at 11:13 pm

wow. from $36B to nearly $100B before the work has even begun. can't wait to see what the tally is after completion of the first phase. A few key notes on the comparison to air travel:
- first, many infrastructure improvements (runways) are paid for by the user via various taxes and tickets, av fuel, etc rather than by every man, woman and child in the state (as well as others states through federal grants) whether or not they actually use HSR.
- Second, the efficiency of HSR and air travel depend greatly on ridership... high ridership air travel actually rivals low ridership rail (<1 MJ/PaxKM). The business plan now mentions less service to maintain high utilization, which should guarantee efficiency, but at the expense of convenience.
- Air traffic delays between SFO and LA-Basin are not dictated by too many flights, but rather by SFO being reduced to one runway when the ceiling drops too low... in the timeframe of HSR, this limitation should be largely removed and "one in four flights" will NOT be delayed an hour or more (as claimed in the report).
- The business plan does not adequately address security, except as to state that HSR will not inconvenience passengers as air travel does via checkin/security screening. True, there will be no massive HSR terminal with hundreds of HSR lines, but any HSR system that can compete with road and air for passenger movement will require security and be a big target (1600 passengers per train). Thus, security will not be limited to checkin and will be required for the lines as well... no simple undertaking, and certainly worth mentioning in terms of cost projections.
And yes, the ridership projections are still rosy... HSR will not supplant all road and air travel between SoCal and NorCal, and even if it largely does, the ridership projections are well in excess (twice) of even that current tally. Thus, the arguments that HSR is less costly than what would be required for road and air assumes improvements in those areas will not be required anyway (e.g. for more long-haul flights). HSR is only part of the efficient transit that Japan and other nations have... California does not have the efficient connections to the rail backbone needed to achieve the ridership projections, and such improvements would need to be considered in the cost as well, or ridership revised downward accordingly.

I'd bet that the eventual cost (not that it will likely happen), will triple yet again... this is a $300 BILLION project... and we just don't have that kind of money in the foreseeable future.

Posted by USA
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Nov 1, 2011 at 11:15 pm

That didn't take long. Not three months ago, the figure was a mear $43 billion Web Link

And who can forget the $100,000 Mtn View spent on four cartoons drawings of a would-be HSR station.

My favorite quote from Eshoo in regard to HSR: "This is no time to stand down or step back," Eshoo said in her statement. "For those of us who believe government can be a source of solutions and a vehicle for progress, we must make it so." Web Link

Posted by Steve
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Nov 2, 2011 at 7:53 am

I'm shocked! Who could possibly have forseen a government spending plan going over budget.

Posted by Martin Omander
a resident of Rex Manor
on Nov 2, 2011 at 3:32 pm

At least somebody ran the numbers on the rail project. No-one is examining the cost of the pollution and congestion that cars produce. It's a classic case of "tragedy of the commons".

Web Link

Posted by Chuck
a resident of Gemello
on Nov 2, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Don't any of you highly intelligent people out there know how to get this farce repealed?

Posted by jusme
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Nov 2, 2011 at 4:05 pm

As I mentioned in this "media" some weeks ago, thank those members
of whatever "Board" for their time and dismiss the whole bunch!
I can't recall being aware of such a flagrant attempt to promote
a public project with so many glaring negatives attached.
The projected cost should be reason enough to put the idea in the proverbial "round file". There is absolutely no convincing
projections that this will be of benefit to anyone - individual
or otherwise. Now go find some other "project" to study!!
(And, thanks to "speechless", above.)

Posted by tommygee54
a resident of Rex Manor
on Nov 2, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Well if by some miracle that we do get HSR completed by 2033 here in the Bay Area, I will be 78 then, with no need to use it. But perhaps I can visit my cousins in Clovis on HSR before then. Oh wait, we won't have it here yet, so I would not be able to use it from a station here in town because the only available HSR trains will be in the Central Valley.

Posted by gcoladon
a resident of North Whisman
on Nov 2, 2011 at 5:20 pm

gcoladon is a registered user.

So will there be a referendum on the 2012 ballot that will enable voters to reconsider their support for the HSR project?

Who's going to step up and set one up?

Posted by Hardin
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Nov 2, 2011 at 8:47 pm

"At least somebody ran the numbers on the rail project. No-one is examining the cost of the pollution and congestion that cars produce. It's a classic case of "tragedy of the commons"."


Not sure tragedy of the commons applies in this case. Unless you are postulating that HSR will replace the need for the automobile, a direct comparison of numbers is invalid. HSR is not the singular solution to our transportation problems. It may complement and supplement our existing transportation venues over time, but there's no evidence it will take the place of the automobile or airplane in every given circumstance.

If anything, that is the failure of those who continue to blindly support this white elephant, even after the budget has tripled in size. To commit to spending 100 billion dollars or more, that we don't have, is the equivalent of a Hail Mary, in hopes of getting a desperately desired touchdown, when it isn't really clear, what we gain.

Posted by Steve
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Nov 2, 2011 at 11:53 pm

Where have all the good folks touting the wonders of this ludicrous HSR project gone? By the sound of it you'd think no one voted for the proposition.

Posted by Another Steve
a resident of Rex Manor
on Nov 3, 2011 at 11:10 am

No visionary project (public or private) has ever been built for the original preplanning cost estimate. We are part of why these costs have escalated. If we really wanted what we voted for (I'm not arguing whether we should or not) it could already be under construction in Caltrain right of way near you. Since our elected's decided we told them we did not want it that way, they have complained and litigated on our behalf so that construction starts in the middle of nowhere, and has to get somewhere before anyone will ride it, thus it all takes longer and costs more. We are more than 35 million Californians today. If we become more than 50 million anytime in the next 25 years, we'll wish we already had this. Governments don't predict the future any better than those who vote for government, so just pick a position and follow your vision.

I don't know, but I'm guessing that stray fields from Maglev trains in a narrow rail corridor would mess up many modern devices. Maybe that is another facet of democracy that the Chinese don't have to concern themselves with. Maybe electric rail technology will survive another 75 years, but in the depth of the Great Depression, nobody but Bill and Dave was envisioning Silicon Valley either.

Posted by Otto Maddox
a resident of Monta Loma
on Nov 3, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Don't blame me, I voted NO on this prop.

Anyone notice that a ticket is going to cost $81 each way?

I take fligths to L.A. on Southwest routinely for $89 and sometimes I can even get them for $59.

Why would I ever take a train when I can fly on a plane that is faster than any train ever built?

Posted by Rodger
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Nov 3, 2011 at 10:32 pm

For the last two years I have predicted that this was a $100B project, now they are finally saying yes it is a super over priced project. I voted no when I had the chance however with the nonsense the promoters were saying at the time it passed with something like 53% yes. I would like to get a chance to vote no again, this time I think the nos would be about 60%.

Posted by Another Steve
a resident of Rex Manor
on Nov 4, 2011 at 9:50 am

Folks (and Otto & Rodger)

I get it. Many folks do not see the future value. I've seen this movie before though. In the sixties San Mateo County had Southern Pacific, and Santa Clara County still had a lot of row crops and orchards. Therefore both counties opted out of BART, later to be burdened with SFO Bart at 3x cost, and VTA Light Rail at high cost and limited utility.

It is fine with me that you don't believe in the future, but the strident language about NEVER could easily be proven wrong. As just one example, what happens to your flight to LA when the price of jet fuel triples in two years someday? You'll want an alternative, but big projects take a long time.

Posted by Hardin
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Nov 4, 2011 at 10:04 am

"No visionary project (public or private) has ever been built for the original preplanning cost estimate."


Let us hope you will have this same positive attitude, when your general contractor gives you same explanation, concerning his bill for the remodel of your home...

Few will dispute the desire to expand our portfolio of EFFECTIVE mass transit options for this state. But the costs must be considered, even more so considering the deplorable condition of the state's finances.

The Big Dig, already considered to be one of the most expensive public project catastrophes started out as a 2 billion dollar project. It ballooned 7 times to 15 billion. HSR was projected to cost 35 billion at the outset, and has already risen to 100 billion without a single shovel hitting the dirt.

And as your quote suggests, the costs most certainly won't stop there.

Posted by Another Steve
a resident of Rex Manor
on Nov 4, 2011 at 11:16 am

Time Out: A home remodel is an agreement between two parties. The number of stakeholders on a project like CAHSR is not comparable. HSR did not have money to do detailed studies prior to the ballot measure being approved. They did publish what they had, but apparently many voters ignored it all.

Would you have asked JFK to give you a Guaranteed Maximum Price for putting an American on the moon? The ballot language does preclude subsidized operations, which perversely may be part of what is scaring off private investors, causing the new business plan to delay full implementation, causing the new estimate to rise by the costs of those delays. This is all radically different than two parties agreeing to scope and cost of a well understood project similar to thousands of others. I work with contractors for a living by the way.

Posted by Arnold
a resident of North Whisman
on Nov 4, 2011 at 3:26 pm

@Another Steve:

Regarding tripling of the price of jet fuel in 2 years: If that happens HSR will the be the least of our worries.

Let's face it railroads are a technology of the 1800s, and using them for inter-regional or transcontinental travel is looking to the past, and not the future. You can speed up the trains as much as you want, but you're still bound by the destination of the rails.

Folks constantly tout the merits of high speed rail in Europe. The problem is that in many cases rail is a complete pain in the behind to use, and traveling by air is faster, cheaper, and more convenient. For example, try traveling by rail from Oslo to London.

Personally, I like the direction of increased efficiencies in commercial aircraft including the use of advanced composites, ever more efficient engines, and biofuels.

Posted by Hardin
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Nov 4, 2011 at 8:38 pm

"This is all radically different than two parties agreeing to scope and cost of a well understood project similar to thousands of others."


With all the differences between a home remodel and HSR, one thing remains the same: costs matter (and the client tends to be a multi-headed beast). Just as having a house with no roof is of little use, so will HSR be of little good, unless the entire scope of work is completed. That means we're committed to completing this project, regardless of what the costs turns out to be, change orders and all, once we start down this path.

A good estimator will get the numbers close, including contingency for the things that inevitably will creep up in a project like this, like the inevitable delays due to public discourse and disclosure.

The fact that the initial estimate is so far off from the current one tells me the HSR group either doesn't know what their doing, or projected a best case scenario. Either option speaks volumes to me about how this project will turn out in their hands.

Posted by Hardin
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Nov 4, 2011 at 9:19 pm

"Would you have asked JFK to give you a Guaranteed Maximum Price for putting an American on the moon?"


Um, Time Out: Are you serious about your comparison of the Apollo program to HSR?

1. Aside from the value of national pride gained from the Apollo mission, and getting winning a pissing match with the USSR, let's remember the long term value from the Apollo mission was the spur in science and technology that it inspired, which gave birth to areas like Silicon Vally, and the benefits that the general public continues to enjoy today in everyday appliances incorporating this technology.

I don't see us inheriting anything like that from HSR, except for a very large bill.

Posted by Hardin
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Nov 4, 2011 at 9:40 pm

With all the excuses being provided in an attempt to justify a $100 billion price tag, little has been said about the opportunity cost, what else could be done with that money:

For instance, California's current budget deficit is estimated to be about $25 billion, and just look at how hard its been to fund that discrepancy, which is only a quarter in size to HSR's "estimated" cost.

Or if we were to just focus these funds on green technologies, let's consider that the largest grants by the federal government to business have been in the $500 million to 1 billion range, only a tenth to what is being proposed to be spent on this rail line.

Consider too, the outrage generated when a company like Solyndra squanders $500 million of the government's money. Yet there are those here who do not hesitate to hand over 20 times that amount to an organization that has no experience managing a construction project of this size or ilk, without blinking an eye?

Show me proof of due diligence in all this, if it can be found.

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