Friday, January 29, 2010

The $43 Billion Train to Nowhere

Breaking News: A screwball Federal grant of $2.25 billion has been awarded to California exclusively to subsidize the development of a “bullet train” running north and south . This makes about as much sense as if one were to give a friend or relative $10,000 to stave off the foreclosure of their house… and they go out and blow it all on beer and cigarettes.

The Projected Result: Some work will get done… leaving a ditch that will fill up with water and breed mosquitoes. The project will be abandoned because of financial reality. First off, the balance of the $43 billion estimated price tag has to be accounted for. Should work continue beyond the initial phase then extraordinary cost overruns will arise (think Bay Bridge rebuild).

At some point, long before completion, it will be discovered that there’s no money available to run the train. What? It was expected to pay for itself or even make a profit (like the airlines it’s intended to replace). But, should such a grandiose money hog charge each passenger what it would really cost to use, no one would bother buying a ticket.

Why? First “why” is why does such a ridiculous idea get catapulted to serious consideration? It has political sex appeal. It’s futuristic, glamorous… it captures the imagination… kind of like wearing propeller beanies to generate electricity.

The second “why” is why is it such a stupid idea? California does have a lot of people… but it also has a lot of empty space. The high speed rail that is currently successful (meaning that the local taxing authorities are able and willing to support the negative cash flow) services areas of mostly continuous high population density. Not only is it where people are, it’s also where they want to go. Should someone in Oakland hop on a “California Bullet Train” to Los Angeles (Anaheim) then what? They have to rent a car. If they’re going to the San Fernando Valley they’d get there later and poorer than if they had just taken I-5 in a car they already own.

Out in remote parts of our state are ghost towns like Bodie… where veins of gold gave out. There are also abandoned utopian communes and religious colonies. Some day there will be the remnants of a train to nowhere and some future documentary film maker will tell it’s ironic story.

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