Editor's Corner: Concerns continue over rail project

May 4, 2017

Madera County has benefited from construction of California High-Speed Rail System infrastructure locally, and last year we heard the high-speed rail board had decided to allow a stop to be built in Madera, so some of the billions being spent on the project are staying in Madera County.


And that’s good, even though farmers and others who have been displaced by construction haven’t always been happy.


In fact, it could be that a stop here would enable Madera to grow as a “bedroom community” for people working in the Bay Area, which could give us a good, long-term economic boost.


But there are great concerns over whether the high-speed rail system will be finished, or if it is finished whether it will be able to operate without heavy public subsidies.


And if it isn’t finished, those new towers rising to eventually carry the planned trains could quickly turn into blight, such as you see in cities with unfinished freeway overpasses.


The original business plan for the California High-Speed Rail System called for private money to flow into the project, but that funding has not materialized. Private investors, and this includes lenders, don’t see how they could make sufficient returns on their investments.


The cost of the project has gone up like a rocket carrying a part for the International Space Station. Originally estimated at some $34 billion, the estimates are at least as much as another $30 billion higher, without any particular new value being added. The train won’t go any faster for all that money being spent, nor will it serve any new customers. It will just cost more.


Some supporters of the project excuse that by saying, “Well, you know how public projects are ... they always wind up costing more than originally planned,” as if somehow runaway costs should be greeted with cheers from the taxpayers who will be left holding the bag if fair box income doesn’t meet expectations and cover the costs of operations and debt retirement.


Another problem for the high-speed rail system is that the technological assumptions that were used when it was first designed are widely agreed to be outmoded.


For example, the project was sold to the public as a system that would travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in about four hours. But that looks less possible every day.


It appears that instead of being a single system, as originally planned, it will be a series of interconnected systems, especially in the crowded Bay Area, where reaching the anticipated speeds would be impossible without considerable expansion of tracks through neighborhoods that would not welcome such growth.


And competition is popping up. We’ve all heard of the “hyperloop” being designed by industrialist Elon Musk, using his company’s money.


No doubt as long as Jerry Brown is governor, we will see work continue on the HSR project, but it might be wise to start thinking about an exit strategy, as well.

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