That modern American conservatism is, in general, highly opposed to high speed rail programs is not a matter of dispute and one that I do not believe I need to source or prove. In certain respects it is even understandable where passenger rail advocates have grossly misrepresented or wrongly implied basic passenger rail improvements as being “high speed rail”, such as was the case in Ohio and Wisconsin and is the case, although the funding remains, with line upgrades and extensions in Illinois and Iowa. That is not to say that I oppose those projects, merely that I understand why, with the lackluster reality of 79 and 110 mph trains when the implication is one of bullet trains, conservative opposition might greatly result. However, opposition to the lines in Florida and California, where the lines are truly high speed, is less clear, if perhaps even more vociferous. So what are some of the reasons that I, as a self-identified conservative, support high speed rail in California if the zeitgeist of conservatism is opposition to high speed rail programs in the United States?
1. High speed rail systems support themselves
As I have previously noted, every high speed rail system in the world brings in enough revenue to cover its operational costs. While they may not necessarily cover the initial capital costs of constructing the lines, that makes them no different from most toll roads and certainly no different than any newly constructed highways. The overall economic benefits of increased mobility and commerce are sufficient to make the initial capital investment a worthwhile expense, especially given that the government can take the long view and evaluate investments not merely over the next few quarters, but over a century or longer (which is not to say, of course, that projects are necessarily a good idea if they take a century to recoup their investment value).
2. High speed rail, especially where it overlays commuter rail, decreases congestion
Currently, despite not being time competitive against cars, the Metrolink commuter rail system ”clears the equivalent of one lane of the 91 Freeway per day” and is expected to do so with another lane following the Perris Valley Line extension. Trains operating on the OC Line add an additional half lane of capacity in terms of riders and cars removed between the hours of 4am and 8am while the San Bernardino Line, over the course of one hour (5:15am to 6:12am) removes just under 2,000 riders, or a full lane of traffic, from the highways. 125 mile per hour commuter trains sharing lines with high speed intercity trains will represent trip times that are not merely time competitive with cars, but outright faster than automobiles on uncongested roads, leading to greater use of them and decreasing overall trip times for those who stay on the roads while others change modes.
Similarly, because high speed rail is competitive with airlines on shorter distance hops of five hundred miles or so, with rail journey times under three hours taking approximately 70% of the air-rail market, air congestion can be lowered (assuming proper regulatory authority is granted to airport managers to ensure that flights are actually dropped rather than replaced with smaller jets and turboprops), resulting in safer air travel with fewer delays.
3. High speed rail reduces the need for other capital investments
We do not live in a static world, but rather a dynamic world of fairly continual growth (at least for the next few decades), and our infrastructure planning must plan for the future. That means we must rationally look at the most cost-effective means of expanding transit mobility to keep up with the expected population growth, expected to reach approximately 44 million by 2020 and 49 million by 2030.
What the recent “Carmageddon” flap in Los Angeles showed, although it was not remarked upon, is that it can no longer be taken as a given that highway spending is the most cost-effective means of reducing traffic congestion. One billion dollars is being spent upon that project in order to add a single carpool lane in each direction for a total of ten miles. One hundred million dollars per mile is tremendously expensive, on par with the cost of building and upgrading urbanized high speed rail lines, and more expensive than building greenfield rail lines (even with America’s cost inflation relative to the rest of the world when it comes to infrastructure projects). For all that, the additional capacity is only up to 2,300 vehicles per hour per direction, or about 4,600 persons since this is a carpool lane requiring at least two persons per vehicle. By contrast, a rail line, for the same money or less, would be capable of carrying as many as 8,300 passengers with ten minute intervals between trains, not including standees, effectively doubling the capacity of the highway improvement for similar amounts of money. With the tremendous population growth in the Inland Empire that we have seen in the past decade and expect to see in the future, it makes far more fiscal sense to utilize high speed rail to expand our mobility solutions rather than the continual expansions of highways that has previously been the case in the California. This is especially the case when high speed rail is more than capable of operating without additional government spending and as the Phase II expansion through the Inland Empire, in particular, is currently intended and expected to be financed through CAHSR revenues and private investment rather than taxation or general obligation bonds.
4. High speed rail insulates intercity travel and commerce from oil shocks.
The heart of economic growth lies in the rapidity and affordability of transport, both for goods and persons. With the current poor fuel efficiency of American cars and the general inefficiency of short distance airline hops such as represented by intrastate air travel, rising fuel costs pose a general harm to our ability to continue to engage in the normal travel and personal commerce to which our economy is accustomed, the loss of which most likely having a deleterious effect upon the economy as a whole. With extremely low profit margins hovering around 2% and cumulative losses of $54 billion over the previous ten years, it is entirely possible that, although the Bay Area-Los Angeles Basin represents the heaviest travelled air corridor in America, future oil shocks may result in curtailment of service, either by airlines seeking to cut costs, or from travelers cutting their own costs and forgoing travel and with it the commerce that would have resulted. Electric high speed rail, by contrast, is unaffected by increased petroleum prices. For those who have work commutes that may be accessed by rail, the steady fares of high speed rail and commuter trains on high speed rail trackage in the face of fuel price increases may very well represent a viable alternative which saves them money. Discretionary income saved (or rather, continuing to be spent in a discretionary manner) rather than being turned into non-discretionary income for transportation is far more beneficial to the economy.
5. High speed rail, as currently designed in California, expands travel and commerce opportunity and activities
Currently, if one wishes to travel in California somewhere other than between the LA Basin and Bay Area, their only choices are extremely expensive air fare or a lengthy piece of driving. Personally this was quite recently hammered home to me when, looking at the potential for meeting up with a friend from out of state who would be visiting Sacramento, I was faced with the options of either spending several hundred dollars on airfare, with inconvenient flight times, or 8-9 hours each way driving, the latter of which was not a feasible option due to work scheduling. For many areas, such as in the Central Valley, driving is currently the only option. With the more convenient transit that high speed rail can generally provide, travel and tourism, already major industries in the state, can only benefit.