Gavin Newsom's bullet train to nowhere

Gavin Newsom is the Democratic candidate for Governor of California who is widely expected to win next month thanks to the state’s overwhelming blue tilt. This week Newsom was asked about his plans for California’s bullet train project and he said he would settle for building half of it as a way to rescue the project that is already way over budget. From the LA Times:

Newsom will concentrate on completing a high-speed rail line from the San Joaquin Valley to the San Francisco Bay Area. The southern half of the ambitious project, from the valley into Los Angeles, will be delayed until the initial line proves to be financially feasible and can attract more money from taxpayers or private investors…

He’s optimistic that the line from the San Joaquin Valley to Silicon Valley can be built. That would allow tech workers to live affordably in Merced or Modesto and commute to well-paying jobs near San Jose.

“It’s not a train to nowhere,” Newsom said. “It’s insulting to suggest the Central Valley is nowhere. This is an economic development project, connecting the fastest growing and most dynamic economic regions in the country. That project is achievable and realistic.

“The second phase [boring through the Tehachapi Mountains to Los Angeles] is an open-ended question.”

It’s not hard to see why Newsom is looking to cut back the scale of the project. Here’s a summary from a previous LA Times story.

In 2008, voters approved what was supposed to be a $33-billion railroad completed by 2020. Today — and check back tomorrow, because these numbers could change — the cost has exploded to an estimated $77 billion and the current completion date estimate is 2033.

Of the three funding sources, state money isn’t nearly adequate, federal money is no guarantee and private investment is nonexistent.

Hundreds of lawsuits over environmental concerns and the rail authority’s condemnations have jammed court dockets for years.

So what do you do when the cost of your rail project more than doubles? Newsom’s plan is to cut the project in half. Here’s a map of what we’re talking about:

The original plan was to create a bullet train that would connect the San Francisco/San Joe area in northern California to Los Angeles in southern California with stops along the way in the central valley. The new plan, if Newsom has his way, is just to build the northern part of the rail line from Fresno up to San Francisco and worry about the rest later or, more likely, not at all.

The problem with this plan should be obvious. If your goal was to connect California’s two population centers with quick, efficient high-speed rail, building half a train doesn’t get the job done. In fact, Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum called it “insane.”

He’s going to build a 150-mile HSR from Fresno to San Francisco? That’s insane. It’s about a 2-3 hour drive and it’s not exactly a congested route: Fresno has a population of only 500,000 and it’s hardly a hotbed of commuter service to the Bay Area. There are a grand total of four daily flights to San Francisco and none to San Jose. Modesto and Stockton add another 500,000 potential riders to HSR-North, but they’re literally only an hour from the Bay Area. This is going to be a ghost train.

Drum concludes, “It either goes from LA to San Francisco or it goes nowhere. In this case, building half a bullet train is like building half a skyscraper: it’s worse than building nothing at all.” James Moore, director of USC’s Transportation Engineering program, told the LA Times, “I can’t see any particular scenario in which we should continue to pour money down this rathole.” Maybe the fact that this is a big waste is dawning on people but, so far, it’s not dawning on the man likely to be our next governor.

For the record, I’ve ridden on the bullet train in Japan and it’s amazing technology. I’d love to see something like that built here but not at a cost of $77 billion for a train that will be significantly slower than air travel (because of all the stops) and not significantly cheaper. That just doesn’t make much sense. And building half of that system out into the middle of the state makes even less sense. It would actually make more sense to build something like this in southern California connecting LA to San Diego. If that trip (which takes about 90 minutes by car on the crowded 405 freeway) could be reduced to 30 minutes at a reasonable price, people on both ends of the line would buy tickets. By contrast, a bullet train to Fresno just sounds like a bad joke.