Watchdogs project spiking costs for high-speed rail

New report from Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design estimates a $65 billion price tag for voter-approved line

California's high-speed-rail project would cost the state about $65 billion under projections released Wednesday afternoon (Feb. 9) by the Palo Alto-based rail watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD).

The group estimates that the cost of the voter-approved project would be about $22 billion more than the latest official estimates from the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the state agency charged with constructing the rail system. Voters approved $9 billion for the project in November 2008 and the authority is banking on federal grants, private investments and contributions from local agencies to make up the balance of the cost.

The rail authority's 2009 business plan, which is now undergoing revisions, estimates the cost of the project to be about $42.6 billion. The price tag was listed at $33.6 billion in 2008, when the project was brought to the voters.

In analyzing the cost of constructing each segment of the proposed San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line, CARRD concluded that the $42.6 billion estimate was "inaccurate, even at the time it was made." The group noted that the rail authority plans to build the rail line in parallel to existing transportation corridors and that this objective requires "expensive civil works which were unaccounted for in the 2009 number."

"Even as environmental and planning work has advanced, no update to the official capital cost estimate has been made," CARRD stated in a news release. "This is true even when the only alternatives in most segments still being studied are significantly more expensive than those used to calculate the $43 billion number."

The group used official documents such as the rail authority's applications for federal stimulus funds and its environmental documents for each segment to tally the costs of the overall line. It concluded that the cost of the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment is now estimated at about $8.8 billion -- about $2.6 billion more than the estimate in the rail authority's 2009 business plan.

According to the CARRD analysis, constructing the San Jose-to-Merced segment would cost about $14.3 billion. The rail authority had estimated this cost at $6.9 billion in its 2009 business plan. The group also estimates that the cost of the Fresno-to-Bakersfield segment is now about $11.1 billion. The rail authority's business plan estimates the cost of this section at $5.1 billion.

Though the rail authority had not reviewed CARRD's report as of Wednesday afternoon, one state legislator put out a statement calling the analysis "invaluable."

State Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, said in her statement that she suspects "even this $65 billion dollar estimate may be low," given the projected $4.3 billion cost of the first Central Valley segment.

"Citizens up and down the state are learning more every day about this multi-billion dollar boondoggle," Harkey said in the statement. "At a time when our state is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and Sacramento is contemplating cuts to education, public safety and taxing us more, do we really need to spend untold billions on another train?"

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Like this comment
Posted by Mike Cobb, former Mayor
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Feb 10, 2011 at 10:40 am

Kudos to CAARD for identifying the spiking costs of HSR. This is no surprise and has long been predicted by HSR critics. In fact, many observers familiar with the costs of comparable projects predict even higher costs ... on the order of $100B. There are many reasons to oppose the HSR project as proposed ... routing that will destroy communities like Palo Alto causing hundreds of people to lose their homes, ridership projections that don't justify the project, the fact that the project will not meet a key test of the Prop 1A ballot measure — that it be self sustaining, incompetent and insensitive management that cares not at all for the impacts on local communities, and the fact the many of the promised jobs will more than likely reside overseas. The CAARD estimate alone clearly underscores the inescapable fact that, as proposed, we cannot afford HSR. There isn't enough Federal money to prevent this project from becoming a completely unacceptable financial burden on California.

Like this comment
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 10, 2011 at 11:16 am

Who did NOT see this coming?

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 10, 2011 at 11:18 am

> There isn't enough Federal money to prevent this project from
> becoming a completely unacceptable financial burden on California.

True, but an article in today's Daily Post reveals that the HSRA has invited foreign countries and the Chinese Communist Government of China to consider funding, and/or building, the HSR. The article says that the State of California will own the system, but given how expensive this boondoggle is becoming, it's not hard to believe that at some point the people who actually funded it will end up owning it (such as the government of China).

There is the possibility that local taxes could be imposed to help payoff some of the local construction costs. That scheme doesn't lower the total costs, just shift the obligation from the HSRA to local governments.

Ending the HSR needs to be at the top of the issues that drive local and state elections .. until we can stop talking about it because it has been "put down".

Like this comment
Posted by paul
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 10, 2011 at 11:19 am

Was I the only one who was confused by the word "under" in the first sentence? It did NOT refer to a cost under-run; far fromit. And no, I am not surprised either

Like this comment
Posted by Paul
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 10, 2011 at 11:26 am

Who here has been on high speed rail in France, Japan or some other country? Who thought it was really terrific - WOW, what a show of hands!!

Now who here thinks that this project, if it were ever completed, would get significant ridership on a consistent ongoing basis?

Wait, I can't see any hands...hello, anyone out there? Strange, I thought some of you who would be paying for this in one way or another would actually think it was a good idea...8<(

Like this comment
Posted by Dahl me
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 10, 2011 at 11:33 am

Utterly shameful nonsense. You clowns in Palo Alto are so high on your horses you think you can destroy the most important infrastructure project since the interstate highway system for the sake of a few back yards??? If you want to get upset about something why not the massive hwy 101 which REALLY destroyed Palo Alto? Or the ungodly traffic you guys produce?

THere is no single project more important than High Speed Rail in this country.

Like this comment
Posted by MyBest
a resident of another community
on Feb 10, 2011 at 11:54 am

Imagine how much cheaper it would be, and faster and with more ridership, if the CHSR were a shorter, straight backbone from L.A. to Stockton, with connections to the Bay Area from there. And cut out most San Joaquin valley stops, until later when ridership justifies them. The final touch would be to add auto-trains.

Like this comment
Posted by galen
a resident of Ventura
on Feb 10, 2011 at 1:20 pm

This insane HSR boondoggle is a curse, not a blessing, and it will destroy our beautiful State of California for generations to come. The thinking behind this crazy idea that we don't have to worry about the cost because China will lend us the money is exactly why the USA is headed straight for Third-World status while China is on the rise.

Like this comment
Posted by tom h
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 10, 2011 at 2:00 pm

gee did we not all see this coming and to be sure it is not the last rise.
what a rip off
and such destruction to our cities and way of life.
please stand up and just stop this train I want off!

Like this comment
Posted by wary traveler
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 10, 2011 at 2:06 pm

I found what this article is referencing. It's a report titled, "What will High Speed Rail cost?" and it's at Web Link. Intriguing, and quite damning if it gets corroborated by the HSRA or another state agency.

Like this comment
Posted by bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 10, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Why does Dahl me ignore the estimates of growing cost and unrealistic ridership projections and focus on "...the cost of a few backyards"? How about a few hundred? And why mention 101 which has been around for decades? Apples and oranges again.

If he/she wanted to make a case for the HSR, focus on factors that affect the project to prove it is worthy of spending money that doesn't exist.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 10, 2011 at 2:15 pm

> THere is no single project more important than High Speed Rail
> in this country.

Hmmm .. this statement is a stretch, at the least. Here's a paper on the Interstate Highway System --

Web Link

The interstate highway system has a much higher density of use than other components of the nation's surface transportation system. The interstate highway system carries nearly 60,000 daily person miles per route mile, 26 times as many person miles per route mile as all other roads (including low usage rural roads), and 22 times as many person miles per route mile as intercity rail (Amtrak) and urban rail combined.

Each year, nearly one trillion person miles are carried on the interstate highway system --- a figure equal to providing trips around the world for 37 million people --- more people than live in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio combined. In its 40 years, more than 17 trillion person miles have been traveled over the interstate highway system.


Here in California, we still don't have an "honest" estimation of the ridership. Estimates can be wrong, but the HSRA has not been honest enough to come up with an incorrect estimate.

No .. the HSR is not the most important infrastructure project. Refurbishing our roads and bridges should have first claim on our money.

Like this comment
Posted by Tell Me Why
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 10, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Dahl me:

What makes HSR so important for Palo Alto that it justifies living with the problems that Mike Cobb and others have pointed out? Your post is big on talk and short on facts.

Let's use this money to patch up Cal Train, which actually works and is practical for local needs. Let's get our state budget in order. If the economy booms again, we can consider HSR again, maybe.

BTW, Highway 101 works very well indeed. Destroyed Palo Alto. Puhleez!

Like this comment
Posted by Chris
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 10, 2011 at 2:34 pm

I happen to agree with Mike Cobb. HSR is a financial turkey. I admire him for taking it on, head on. Mayor, again?

I also think that HSR does not make environmental sense. Since HSR will be driven by electricity, where will the electrons come from? Coal?

I also fail to understand why our city council supported this thing. It is a completely crazy idea. Is it because they , mistakingly, think it is green? I am rolling my eyes. Why are we doing this to ourselves?

Like this comment
Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Palo Alto
on Feb 10, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Paul Losch is a registered user.

High Speed Rail has its place, and is not a panacea. I find the Obama Adminstration to lack the nuanced understanding of where such a form of transportion makes sense and where it does not.

It does not make sense for California.

I will repeat my point of view that the level of funding required for HSR should be funded for more local transit.

Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 10, 2011 at 5:08 pm

No high-speed rail advocate or supporter has ever been able to tell me what the top price would be beyond which that person would oppose the construction of the train. Is there no upper limit beyond which the cost/benefits are no longer acceptable even to the most ardent HSR lover? That realization takes the conversation out of the realm of logic or plausibility.

And, that being the case, there is no basis for any sensible conversation or even disagreement. There are no rational grounds whereby one side can understand the 'language' of the other. All these blog fights are pointless inasmuch as they are understood only by the "choir" to whom we are preaching.

Being an opposer, my case is rejected not on the basis of empirical data, but on ad hominem grounds.

My point here is that the newly revealed price for California's high-speed train, $65 billion and rising, is relevant only to those of us who already think this project is a huge, existential mistake. It's meaningless to those who support the train on ideological and visionary grounds.

Those who oppose this project, or are on the fence, should see:
Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Howard
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 10, 2011 at 5:40 pm

The HSR will cost whatever it costs. Building a railroad is not that complicated or elusive a project. If this country can not afford a modern high speed rail system, then it is in a hopeless state. I can not believe that, in the long run, the cost of this top-priority project can not be easily absorbed.

Like this comment
Posted by Transport Scholar
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 10, 2011 at 6:41 pm

Kill the high speed rail boondoggle. As a scholar of energy and transportation I can assure you that these sorts of rail projects are inevitably fiscal disasters.

Like this comment
Posted by Tell Me Why
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 10, 2011 at 8:44 pm


Let me see if I've got this straight. You say that we should build this boondoggle because if we can't afford it, we're in a hopeless state. Doesn't matter whether the project makes sense? Doesn't matter that the state of California is in dire straits financially? Doesn't matter that your marvelous "modern high speed rail system" probably will not have anywhere near enough riders to be self-supporting?

There's something wrong with your logic, Howard. Think about it.

Like this comment
Posted by Beyond money
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 10, 2011 at 10:47 pm

The real problem with this proposal is that it works against the infrastructure we want, rather than helping it.

From a high level, the biggest challenge for California is suburban sprawl. Planners all agree that we need to build infrastructure that works against that, and helps population growth in a more manageable way.

HSR will enable and facilitate suburban sprawl; in fact, its main benefit is touted to be its enabling of physical commutes from places that currently don't lend themselves to commuters.

Even if it could make money, even if it brought local jobs, even if it could show itself to be a net energy saving, even if it could have a net positive impact on our air and water, even if we weren't in a really tough situation requiring us to temporarily cut spending, HSR would be wrong for California now.

I'm with Paul. We need local transit infrastructure. I don't know if that means reworking light rail, new trains, a better bus system, or whatever.

Maybe more wireless bandwidth can eventually mitigate our terrible local transit infrastructure, but it can't quickly substitute for it.

Like this comment
Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 10, 2011 at 10:59 pm

I would like to remind everyone that the rolling stock and associated hardware for this project would likely be manufactured in Asia. Cutting deals for CA HSR was part of the Gubernator's mission on his trip through Asia last fall. If it is built, you can kiss billions of your federal stimulus dollars goodbye as they go overseas to create jobs and stimulate the economy of China, Japan or South Korea.

Let's reflect on this for a moment. Suppose the hardware is made in China. It is financed in part with federal stimulus dollars. Where did those federal stimulus dollars come from? With the country so deeply in debt, we likely borrowed those funds from where else? CHINA! We will be spending that borrowed money in the very country that lent it to us!

Governor Brown needs to see the light. He may be in favor of mass transit in principle, but I hope he doesn't drink the "green" Kool-Aid. He should drive a stake in the heart of this disaster in the making immediately. IMO he should dismantle the HSR authority tomorrow.

Like this comment
Posted by Spokker
a resident of another community
on Feb 11, 2011 at 1:26 am

"I'm with Paul. We need local transit infrastructure. I don't know if that means reworking light rail, new trains, a better bus system, or whatever."

Commuter rail facilitates urban sprawl by providing an alternative to traffic between places like LA and Rialto or San Francisco and Palo Alto.

I agree that local transit trumps high speed rail in importance, but here we are in a new era of fiscal discipline and it's likely that transit will fall by the wayside with or without high speed rail.

Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 11, 2011 at 9:39 am

I've yet to hear any suggestions by the HSR detractors for how we should deal with our airport capacity when the California population hits 60 million. Last time I checked, there is no room, physically, to expand the majority of our airports.

Like this comment
Posted by Deceived Voter
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 11, 2011 at 9:54 pm

It's great to read all the articulate comments about why the HSR is a bad idea. As a voter back in Nov 2008 I had NO idea that Prop 1A was referring to a route along the Caltrain corridor, which is close to so many homes. Back in 2008 I never dreamed the project would cost on the order of $60 billion. Voters did not have the proper information to make an informed decision at that time. The CHSRA keeps saying that all their plans are "voter-approved." That's not true anymore. Obama needs to hear from Californians so that he's clear on where we stand.

Like this comment
Posted by Perspective
a resident of Meadow Park
on Feb 13, 2011 at 7:16 am

Dear Decieved:

No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.” ~ Lily Tomlin


“Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”
P. J. O'Rourke

Keep those two quotes in mind at every election, and vote accordingly. Never vote to give any money or power to any government, and then assume that even if what you voted for wins, it will turn out badly...but not as badly as if the "other side" had won.

And then you become a wise voter.

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