The rest of the country may be putting the brakes on high-speed rail projects, but the concept is alive and well in California. The state Senate recently passed a measure, with only Democratic votes, to put about $8 billion toward initial development of a bullet train to run between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The vote was hailed as a victory by Democrats, who said the project was an economic stimulus for the state.
Then last week, a UCLA economic analysis threw a wet blanket on the fire when it stated that a similar bullet train project in Japan in the 1960s did not create jobs or boost the economy. The study also said that high-speed rail tends to create sprawl because it makes it cheaper and easier to live in bedroom communities. (Depending on your point of view, this could be a good thing or a bad thing.)
Given congressional Republicans' unwillingness to come along for the high-speed train ride and Republican governors' refusal of high-speed rail money, California may offer the only realistic opportunity anytime soon to understand how and when to embark on high-speed rail projects. And the state still has a long way to go, with total costs for the project estimated at around $70 billion. We know that building a high-speed rail system from scratch takes a long time--longer than any politician's public life--and that the jury is still out on how beneficial such transit is to the overall economy. We also know that investment in infrastructure is about as solid a commitment as a city or state can make to its residents. There is no way that money is going overseas.
What can we learn from California's struggle to build a bullet train? Will partisan divisions sink the project? Is it true that building the transit system won't impact the economy? Does it matter? Are there less tangible benefits from super-fast train between two hubs? Would it be a benefit for the whole state or just Los Angeles and San Francisco residents?