History Gives Hope to California High-Speed Rail

What America's first-generation railroad system says about its next one

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California High-Speed Rail Authority

The California High-Speed Rail Authority is expected to release its long-awaited business plan today. According to the Associated Press, which obtained a draft copy of the plan, the authority now estimates a cost of $98.5 billion for the completed line from San Francisco to Los Angeles. That's far north of the initial figure of $43 billion put forth in 2008, when state residents voted to help fund the line. The rising cost will make headlines but should come as no surprise; the authority has known for a while now that its original number was too low.

It would be unfortunate if that figure obscured some of the new plan's very encouraging details. The system will be constructed in sections — beginning with the Central Valley section, between Merced and Bakersfield, set to be completed by 2017 — that can operate independently once completed. The line will make money even at the low end of ridership estimates, with a net operating profit of roughly $352 million a year. (Most high-speed rail lines are profitable on an annual basis; it's the initial capital costs that are harder to recoup.) The system will use existing track into San Francisco and Los Angeles, a decision that could compromise efficiency to some extent but will be more popular with residents.

The month leading up to the plan's release has been a rough one for the authority. Its new deputy director for communications was caught sleeping at a public meeting. A poll showed California residents were turning on the bullet line, with some 62 percent saying they would vote to stop it. Neighborhood objection to the route of the Central Valley segment has intensified in Bakersfield. Perhaps most important, the state high-speed rail authority admitted to legislators that private investment — which we called the project's best hope for near-term funding — may not be forthcoming until the system enters operation. (The new business plan expects 20 percent of the project total to come through private investment.)

The next two months will likely be rough as well. That's how long the state legislature has to approve the plan, the final necessary step for releasing project funds. (Governor Jerry Brown, a supporter of the line, must give his blessing too.) During this time the plan will no doubt receive some very responsible scrutiny, as well as some less responsible ideological attacks. But the history of America's first-generation rail system offers some hope to those wondering whether or not its next-generation system will ever arrive.

In the early 19th century the future of American transportation was unclear. The Erie Canal connecting Albany with the Great Lakes (and, via the Hudson, New York City) was the talk of the country. Many cities were convinced the only way to keep up was to duplicate this effort. Philadelphia did just that, digging a lengthy canal toward Ohio that was obsolete shortly upon, if not before its completion. Canals were quite literally called the "highways" of their day by many advocates. But a few other cities — chiefly Boston, though also Baltimore — were willing to consider a more innovative technology that had received few trials in America but was flourishing in England: the railroad.

Boston's decision to create a three-line railroad system at a time when several cities wanted canals has a few parallels to California's current situation. First there were the doubters. Today high-speed rail critics like to call the Central Valley line a "fast train to nowhere." In the 1820s critics of Boston's plans called a railroad toward Albany "as useless as a railroad from Boston to the Moon." Then there were fears of overthrowing the status quo. The owners of stagecoach lines, like auto interests today, protested the loss of their livelihoods. And of course there were legitimate cost concerns. The Massachusetts state legislature was too scared (and too poor) to pay for the railroad, and at first did not.

In the end Boston investors built short segments, roughly 40 miles long, which served as proof of the technology. The funding was reversed from today, with private businessmen acting first back then, but the success of the line encouraged much more construction, with those three short lines quickly filling out the entire Northeast. That's why the California authority's decision to operate completed sections independently augers well for the project as a whole. When New Yorkers saw Boston's trains in action, for instance, they began to fear losing out to "the movement of our enterprising neighbors" and wanted railroads for themselves. Similarly, once the Central Valley shows California what high-speed rail can do, residents of Los Angeles and San Francisco may well call for its extension. The AP suggests as much in its report on the new business plan:

Planners hope each new section will generate momentum — and private investment — to complete subsequent sections.

A shift from car travel to high-speed rail is a considerable cultural undertaking, especially in auto-centric California. Of course, some would argue that's what makes the project so necessary. But it's important to keep in mind that major shifts in American transportation have all taken time to gain acceptance. Boston needed 10 years to finish its first three trial railroad lines, which opened in 1835; during that long wait some critics began to call for canals once more. High-speed rail efforts in the United States are likewise in their infancy. In February, when the Obama administration announced its grand high-speed rail vision, Congressional critics suggested it was insane to pursue a plan that many people keep rejecting. When the first big supporter of Boston's railroads tried to convince people of its technological and social merits — he predicted, quite accurately in hindsight, that it would "produce an entire revolution in the business of this part of the country" — he was called crazy, too.

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