High-Speed Rail: A Second Look

*The Stanford Daily *Editorial Board recently published two editorials lauding the benefits of the California high-speed rail initiative passed in November 2008, giving it their “emphatic and sincere support.” In the interest of due diligence, we hope to temper this view with some of the harsh realities surrounding the $45 billion (and counting) project.

Many proponents of the initiative (including the Daily’s Editorial Board) are excited about the environmental benefits of rail. High-speed trains are more efficient than other forms of transportation used between northern and southern California, such as cars and airplanes.

Unfortunately, the environmental benefits of a high-speed rail are achieved at enormous cost; as the *Daily *notes, if the project meets expectations, it could reduce approximately 12 billion pounds of CO2 emissions per year. Wendell Cox, who served on the Amtrak Reform Council from 1999-2002 and authored a study on California’s rail project in 2008, estimates that carbon reduction comes at a cost of $2,000 per ton of CO2. To give a sense of perspective, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that we can meet carbon reduction targets by spending $50 or less per ton, nearly 40 times less.

The Daily’s Editorial Board also expresses hopes for the economic benefits that will be derived from the initiative. Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa echoed these hopes, as he stated his support for the project: “14% unemployment in L.A., we’re ready to get people to work.”

However, there are reasons to believe that the project is part of a larger spending problem California faces that are the cause of its high unemployment, not its cure. Proposition 1A authorizes an initial $9.95 billion bond issue, which would be repaid by California’s taxpayers over the next 30 years. Furthermore, the National Taxpayers Union estimates that the total cost to taxpayers (due to debt service and project costs) could exceed $81 billion.

These taxes are passed down in the form of our state sales and income taxes, and there is significant evidence that California’s unusually high unemployment rates are directly tied to its already stifling business climate. Consider: according to data collected by United Van Lines, 8 of the top 10 states with the highest tax rates had a higher outbound than inbound household moves (California included), whereas 6 of the 7 states without income tax had a net inflow of households; these migratory trends lead to a further erosion of California’s tax base, and reflect an underlying outflow of businesses and jobs. Similar correlations exist between unemployment and tax rates.

This evidence suggests that California should think twice before piling on the debt; already, our state holds the unfortunate honor of having both the highest sales *and *income tax in the nation. There is a great reason to believe that the high-speed rail initiative would further compound the already grim high tax situation, and saddle Californians with taxes for generations to come.

To be fair, the *Daily’s *Editorial Board states their “concerns about what this project will hold for the short-term financial stability of California, but we reiterate that the object of this rail is not profitability but rather creating an efficient and sustainable mode of transportation for California.”

However, this shortsighted perspective seems curiously similar to the attitude of the politicians who put California into its current budget crisis. It could be that the substantial yet ineffectively begotten environmental benefits of high-speed rail would come at the expense of more businesses and people fleeing the state, a shoddy trade for the people of California.

Furthermore, we should drop any pretense of profitability; the director of the International Union of Railways in France reported to the New York Times that only two high speed rail routes have *ever *paid back their initial capital and operational costs, one in France and one in Japan. It is not considered likely that a California high-speed rail route will join this category.

In “High-speed rail will bring sustainable future,” the Daily Editorial Board concludes, “We are confident that the people of California will take this opportunity to join the rest of the world in revolutionizing their transportation model.” What the article fails to consider adequately is the price tag associated with this “revolution”; it may be that California would be better served by sitting this one out.

We look forward to the remainder of the Daily’s**series on high-speed rail; however, we hope that future editorials are able to incorporate more of the complexities surrounding the project – the Stanford community deserves the whole story.

Editorial Board

Unsigned editorials represent the views of The Stanford Review‘s Editorial Board and do not necessarily reflect opinions of The Stanford Review or its staff. The Editorial Board consists of the Opinion Editor, the Executive Editor, and the Editor-in-Chief. To submit a letter to the editor or guest op-ed, please e-mail our Opinion Editor, Matt Sprague, at mattfs@stanford.edu.

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