Higher costs for bullet train worth it, California officials say
Though the cost estimate for California’s bullet train project has more than doubled to nearly $100 billion, high-speed rail officials said Tuesday a new business plan will create an economically successful system, generate more than a million jobs and provide a transportation alternative for the state’s growing population.
The plan calls for the 520-mile first phase from San Francisco to Anaheim to be constructed in segments between 2012 and 2033, 13 years longer than the original construction deadline of 2020. Rail officials said the later completion date, while driving up the cost of the project, will provide more time to secure funding and reduce potential risks for the project.
“We have carefully constructed a business plan that is mindful of the economic and budgetary constraints facing both the state and the nation,” said Thomas J. Umberg, board chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority. “It will deliver to California and Californians a cost-effective, efficient and sensible alternative to more highways and increased airport congestion.”
The new business plan states that the project’s full first phase will cost about $98.5 billion, more than double the last estimate -- $43 billion -- produced by state officials in 2009. The higher estimate has intensified criticism of the project at a time when the state and federal governments are facing major budget challenges.
According to the plan, the system will be funded with a mix of federal and state dollars as well as billions from private investors who will be attracted to the project by its operating profits. Those profits would be realized when the first operating segment begins carrying passengers, officials insist.
Rail officials say the project is needed to keep California competitive economically and accommodate the state’s growing population, which is projected to increase by 20 million within the next 40 years. Without high-speed rail, the plan states, $171 billion will need to be spent in California on new highways and airport facilities.
Future funding for the project remains a major question. Even before the new cost estimate, additional high-speed rail financial support faced a steep climb in Congress, which has been looking for ways to reduce the federal budget deficit.
“I don’t see where the financing is going to come from right now. The only way to do that is to create some kind of revenue source, like a tax. I don’t see the political will for that today,” said David Brownstone, an economics professor at UC Irvine, who has evaluated the project’s earlier ridership and revenue projections.
-- Dan Weikel
Photo: An artist's rendering of the proposed high-speed rail station in San Jose. Credit: California High-Speed Rail Authority / Bloomberg