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Op-Ed

Take this bullet train. Please

California's proposed high-speed rail project is a costly boondoggle.

November 06, 2011|By Richard White

Second, the ridership will be immense — anywhere from 28.6 million to 37.1 million. This admittedly may appear realistic compared with the 90 million once promised. It is, however, not far from the 39 million projected in 2009. The agency can't go much below this. It needs high ridership or the model for turning a profit falls apart.

But these kinds of projects always overestimate their ridership. Actual ridership of the BART line to San Francisco's airport, for example, was in 2009 only 25% of the 2003 prediction. If California high-speed rail captured the same percentage of riders as Amtrak's Acela does today in the Northeast corridor, an area with a long tradition of rail travel and a higher population than California, it would have about 5 million riders, not 28 million to 37 million. Uh-oh.

Read the fine print. The report contains a disclaimer. The ridership projections are estimates. They are "subjective judgments" and "may differ materially from the actual future ridership and revenue." They should not be "construed to constitute a guarantee, promise, or representation of any particular outcome(s) or result(s)." You have been warned.

Like any magicians, the writers turn attention elsewhere. High-speed rail will supposedly relieve us of $170 billion in airport and highway costs. We are really $70 billion ahead. How do we know this? Well, they told us, even though most airline traffic coming into and out of the state has nothing to do with travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles (let alone Merced and Bakersfield). And unless we build separate freight lines, trucks will continue to thunder down Interstate 5.

These are all old tricks. I have written in my recent book, "Railroaded," about the original transcontinental — the Central Pacific/Union Pacific, a road that lacked traffic and acquired a huge debt. In his draft of the 1872 Central Pacific annual report, Leland Stanford — either from unusual honesty or from normal carelessness — listed all the company's debts, including the capital costs: the principal and interest owed the federal government. The reader can almost hear his partner Collis P. Huntington's long-suffering sigh as he wrote: "I shall strike the interest out unless I get the reasons why they were put in as this report is to help the sale of stock and this item of say $80,000,000 is not in that direction."

The ghost of Huntington hovers over the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Its members are supposed to protect the California public, but there is too much money to be made from this project to do that. They are boosters who tell us what they want us to know. They sell the Legislature short, and in this they may be right. They sell the governor short, and in this too they are probably right. They also sell the California public short. They think we are suckers.

I hope they are as wrong in this as they are in their calculations.

Richard White is a professor of history at Stanford University and the author of "Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America."

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