in Houston, Texas
As Texas studies north-south rail line, independent Calif. panel rejects $98.5 billion bullet train system
Thursday, Jan 05, 2012, 01:31PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
bullet train
Not that the governor of California is likely to pay much attention, but Texans might want to spend a little time with a brief report by the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group.

In short, this independent panel of experts concluded that in almost every way imaginable the state’s taxpayers could not afford a $98.5 billion bullet train system.

With the symmetrical logic of a politician Gov. Jerry Brown is saying, oh, yes they can. He is asking the Legislature to issue $9 billion in bonds to get the project started. The report, the governor’s press secretary told the Los Angeles Times, "does not appear to add any arguments that are new or compelling enough to suggest a change in course.”

The state auditor, the state inspector general, analysts for the University of California - Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies and the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation Committee, all of whom came to the same conclusion, also failed to provide the governor with any new or compelling arguments.

Fortunately for Brown, the Peer Review Group has no legal standing to stop the project, although the group was created by state law to protect the public interest.

Texans have for at least two decades considered the benefits of high speed rail, coming close in 1990 to becoming the first state in the country to build a system. The question then, as it is today in California, is whether or not taxpayers are willing to pay for it and continually support it.

Since then, Texas has spent tens of millions of taxpayers dollars, repeatedly asking the same questions in study after feasibility study. Last May the state received $15 million in federal taxpayer funds for a study of a Houston to Dallas/Fort Worth line.

The Lone Star Rail District, in existence for almost a decade, is drawing on $10 million in federal funds for an environmental study in the hopes of one day realizing some kind of commuter rail line linking Austin to San Antonio.

The California Peer Review Group has provided a public service by demonstrating the value of such high speed rail reports. California voters were asked in 2008 to approve that $9 billion bond package based on a state report that estimated the total cost of the rail line at $33.6 billion with a 2020 completion date.

After the bond issue passed, the state produced another report saying the project had gone up to $42.6 billion, and two years later another report with the current $98.5 billion, with the bonus that it would take 13 more years to complete.

Nearly 60 percent of California voters think they were sold a bill of goods and would reject the rail plan if they knew what it really cost, according to the California-based Field Poll. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed would like another chance to vote, the poll said.

Another chance? Fat chance. Polls on high speed rail have exactly the same value to the governor of California as reports.
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of a bullet train in Taiwan by flickr user Strychnine, used via a Creative Commons license.
Thursday, 01/05/2012 - 01:50PM

Not a good comparison to Lone Star Rail, which is not a high speed project, but simply a conventional passenger rail line. It makes use of existing Union Pacific Railroad tracks, unlike HSR which requires new, exclusive right of way to be acquired. And it also enjoys wide community and political support from Georgetown to San Antonio.

Thursday, 01/05/2012 - 10:21PM

We can dance around this all day long but the stark facts are that California and Texas are not the same.

Before we even start discussing slow, medium and high speed passenger rail and the costs involved, remember that the terrain to build a passenger rail corridor in California is a lot tougher than Texas. You have mountains and earthquake concerns in California. We have relatively flat land in Texas where you can have tangent track for miles and miles.

California is a state that is fiscally bankrupt and that happened years ago. They are in denial and keep digging a deeper hole. Texas government must operate with a balanced budget by law.

Yes, passenger rail development in Texas had been proceeding at a snails pace up until two years ago. There was no "rail department" at TxDOT. Only highway folks thinking concrete and asphalt. A Rail Division has been formed. A state rail plan has been developed. It's a pretty big read. It's online. Texas is doing the proper due diligence in coming up with a smart, long term plan. It will take time to develop because it is being done as it should be with planning.

Now that there is a state rail plan, it's up to the public and private sector to figure out how it should be funded. Why not form partnerships? Why not a transportation Infrastructure bank for rail? Where is the funding when voters said YES back in 2005 for the Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund (Prop 1)? A UT-Austin survey of Texans showed a majority want passenger rail service between major cities. A majority also nodded yes to using taxes to do it.

Funding problems don't just apply to rail but also to highway construction and maintenance. Only half of the money you pay at the pump now in state gas taxes goes to maintain and build the highway network. The rest comes out of your's and Bubba's wallet. Surprised? You are subsidizing the highways!

The legislature and the Governor need to come up with a strategy and a long term transportation funding mechanism for moving people from point A to point B in the future because there are going to be more of us here. Waiting through another legislative session in 2013 won't cut it.

Friday, 01/06/2012 - 06:52PM

Using this same line of reason our country would have no public roads, no airports, no public ports, and little in the way of travel freedoms.

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