California Bullet Train A $98.5B Proposition

The California High-Speed Rail Authority did a massive reset this week, announcing a business plan that more than doubles the cost of the planned 220-mph, San Francisco-to-Los Angeles train service – from $43 billion to $98.5 billion – but that lays the groundwork for a “fiscally sound project that will attract and drive private investment, generate strong revenues and operate without any public subsidies,” it said.

The new cost figure was startling, but the agency said that it represented a more realistic assessment, taking into account inflation, the cost of materials and “rigorously tested” ridership projections. “This is a current, realistic and transparent plan and identifies the funds and financing necessary to implement high-speed rail in California,” board member Mike Rossi, a recent appointee of Gov. Jerry Brown, said in a statement.

image via California High-Speed Rail Authority

A key element of the plan is a phased approach to building the system that takes advantage of existing infrastructure, the agency said. As previously announced, construction is set to begin next year on a 130-mile stretch in the Central Valley, from just north of Bakersfield to just south of Merced. As work proceeds on this “Initial Operating Section,” the agency will decide whether to go to work next on the south end of the line – heading toward the Los Angeles Basin – or the north end of the line – heading into San Jose. In those regions, the agency will look to convert existing commuter lines for its own use.

Ultimately, the agency is looking at having San Francisco and Los Angeles connected by high-speed rail by 2033. At that time, “The average ticket fare between San Francisco and Los Angeles will be $81 (83 percent of anticipated airline ticket prices) in 2010 dollars, with up to nine trains per hour during the peak period; express trains will take under three hours between San Francisco and Los Angeles; multistop trains will take longer,” the agency’s report [PDF] says.

One group that might be saying “I told you so” about now is the Reason Foundation. In 2008, as Californians were contemplating a ballot measure to fund high-speed rail, and the Rail Authority was estimating the total cost of the system in the mid-$40 billion range, Reason put out a report that argued “the final price tag for the complete high-speed rail system will actually be $65 to $81 billion.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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