More Green New Deal: Let's replace air travel with high-speed rail

The Green New Deal (GND) outline released today by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey calls for a total overhaul of the U.S. transportation system. Specifically, the GND states that over the next decade America must “build out high-speed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary.”

The GND proposal released today came in a couple of different packages. There is an actual resolution which proposes a transportation overhaul “as much as is technologically feasible.”

overhauling transportation systems in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible, including through investment in—

(i) zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing;

(ii) clean, affordable, and accessible public transportation; and

(iii) high-speed rail;

The quote above about eliminating air travel comes from a summary document which was also released this morning by GND supporters. That document has a heading which reads “National mobilization [sic] our economy through 14 infrastructure and industrial projects.” Just one of those projects is “Meet 100% of power demand through clean and renewable energy sources.” It’s laughable to call this optimistic. What it is, barring some breakthrough technology announcement tomorrow, is impossible.

One notable problem with moving to 100% renewables is that there’s not a renewable solution for mass, public air travel. The closest thing the GND can come up with is to replace air travel with trains. And obviously, even that has limits. You can’t create high-speed rail from the U.S. to Europe or Japan.

The language of the document is also pretty odd. If you build out enough high-speed rail, air travel could, in theory, stop being necessary but it wouldn’t “stop becoming necessary.” That’s because it already became necessary decades ago. At this point, it’s too late to stop that happening. All you can do is replace it with something else. So is that possible?

As you probably recall, we have a high-speed rail project that is currently underway here in California. The plan was to create a line that would connect San Francisco and Los Angeles. How is that going? Not very well as the LA Times noted last year:

The price of the California bullet train project jumped sharply Friday when the state rail authority announced that the cost of connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco would be $77.3 billion and could rise as high as $98.1 billion — an uptick of at least $13 billion from estimates two years ago.

The rail authority also said the earliest trains could operate on a partial system between San Francisco and Bakersfield would be 2029 — four years later than the previous projection. The full system would not begin operating until 2033.

And that’s for a project that has been underway for more than a decade. As Ed pointed out last March, the price just keeps going up even as the completion date slips into the future:

In 2008, California voters approved $10 billion in bonds for the project after being told that it had “estimated costs over $33 billion.” The Mercury News pegged it at a more precise $33.6 billion. The CHRSA claim has turned out to be more accurate, in a sense; it’s how much over $33 billion it will take. Right now, CHSRA estimates that it will take $44 billion over $33 billion, which seems like something more than a rounding error…

What about the schedule? According to their initial plan, the train would begin operating on its initial segment “eight to 11 years” after the project got funded. We are now coming up to year ten, and there isn’t a train schedule in sight even for the Bakersfield-Fresno segment that will respond to the overwhelming commute demands between those two cities. CHSRA now estimates that they won’t connect San Francisco to the Central Valley until 2029.

Again, this is one line along a relatively flat, open, and sparsely populated path through central California. With this in mind, how costly are the LA to New York trains going to be and how soon will they be complete? Certainly not in a decade or even two. And in the meantime, there are 43,000 daily flights and 2.6 million passengers handled by the FAA each day. It’s going to take a lot of high-speed trains to bring those numbers down substantially (not even accounting for growth over time).

AOC says the goal of all this is to engage the public imagination. That’s great in theory but getting millions of people excited about a project that sounds good as a bullet point but which would actually be exorbitantly expensive and difficult in reality is only going to generate frustration in the long run. This proposal has more in common with snake oil than public policy.

Update: Sen. Hirono makes an obvious point.