Nerenz: Dodging The Bullet Train

By Dr. Tim Nerenz
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Note, this column originally appeared at Dr. Tim Nerenz’ Moment of Clarity website.

A first-class round-trip airline ticket from Los Angeles to San Francisco costs $393.60. And what, you may wonder, does that have to do with you?

Here’s what: it would be cheaper for you – the taxpayer – to buy first-class tickets for the first 12 million High Speed Rail (HSR) passengers than it will be to build the first phase of California’s HSR. Let that sink in for just a moment.

The taxpayers of the nation ($3.3 billion) and the state of California ($1.4 billion) will pay more than $4.7 billion to build a rail line that 99% of Americans (and over 70% of Californians surveyed for that matter) will never use. But wait – that is just the tip of the iceberg.

You see, that $4.7 billion only covers a tiny little stretch of the total system – Step 1, they call it. The California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) tells us that this first leg is vital because it “closes the rail gap between Bakersfield and Palmdale.” The punch line writes itself.

The cost to build the entire 520 mile length of California’s HSR is now estimated to exceed $98 billion. That is not a misprint. If you need a little perspective, there are 119 countries whose GDP is less than $98 billion.

$98 billion would buy 249 million first-class airfares. That’s right – 249 million rides from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back, twice as fast as the bullet train, free drinks, and you don’t have to stop in Palmdale.

And $98 billion is only the initial construction cost for California’s HSR; it does not include the annual operating and maintenance costs once the system is built. The California High Speed Rail Authority projects operating costs of $453 million per year; they say they will sell the 6 million fares it will take to break even and avoid a taxpayer subsidy.

Let’s stop laughing for a minute and give them the benefit of the doubt that a government public works program will come in on budget (snort), cost what they say to operate (involuntary passing of gas) and achieve the ridership they claimed in order to sell DOT on the project (milk through nose).

$98 billion would buy those 6 million California train dudes and dudettes first-class round-trip airfare from LAX to SFO and back for the next 41 years. 41 years is a long time – we will have forgotten the next two generations of Kardashians by then; Lindsay Lohan’s granddaughter will be in rehab.

And flying them all first class will save over $18 billion of train operating costs – money that can be used for other liberal priorities, like feeding hungry children, insuring the uninsured, building spy drones to buzz tea parties, suing states, or invading Syria.

This is what happens when people with no clue where money comes from decide what to do with yours. Economic absurdity requires a level of ignorance not easily maintained over the course of normal living. These ideas do not spring up in places like Bakersfield and Palmdale; they are hatched in reality deprivation chambers like Washington, Madison, and Berkley.

Actually, I am a fan of high-speed-rail – just not the public variety. If HSR was economically viable, private investment would develop it; there is enough cash on corporate balance sheets to build the California system four times over, to say nothing of the capital available in private equity firms.

HSR is built in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost in China, where advanced construction technology is utilized and the business climate favors economic development. But California is not China; California’s business climate favors Nevada – there’s your moment of clarity.

The irony is that many of the same people who worked to kill mining in Wisconsin are out pushing for High Speed Rail in California. Perhaps no one has explained it to them, but there isn’t one single part in that whole system that is woven out of hemp.

It will take millions of pounds of iron, copper, nickel, silver, cement, aluminum, rare earth metals, and plastics refined from petroleum to make this bullet train they seem to think Providence owes them. And guess what – coal and nuclear power plants will furnish the power that will make it go fast. Trains do not run on good intentions.

Construction of the rail line will take thousands of diesel-powered machines and there will be belching black puffs of carcinogens every time a piece of dirt is moved. Those dozers and graders and excavators will be polluting the air in California and heaving greenhouse gasses up into the atmosphere for 20 years before the first “green” ride on that bullet train ever takes place.

The FAQ page of the California High Speed Rail Authority points to Spain as its role model. Yes, that Spain – the nation that had to borrow money from France to pay its portion of the Greek bailout to keep Portugal from falling next and taking Italy with it. Thank goodness we didn’t copy their health care model, too…oh, wait…never mind.

The California High Speed Rail project would be stupid even if we had money. But since the nation is broke, and California has to look up to even see the bottom of broke, the project is certifiably insane. That’s why all the grownups said no.

Wisconsin dodged a high-speed bullet when Governor Walker killed HSR here, and Florida’s Governor Rick Scott was smart enough to pass on it, too – as were dozens of other sober governors with calculators and a lick of common sense. It took the combined moonbattery of Jerry Brown, Ray LaHood, and Barack Obama to place the nation’s dumbest public works project on the nation’s most active fault line.

It was inevitable that this HSR project would end up in California; it is the only state in the union with enough weed to make it seem like a good idea.

“Moment Of Clarity” is a weekly commentary by Libertarian writer and speaker Tim Nerenz, Ph.D. Visit Tim’s website to find your moment.