ANALYSIS: High Speed Rail Naysayer Scott Says Nay to California Costs

Email a Friend
Florida Governor Rick Scott wasted no time making hay of the formal increase in cost projections for high speed rail in California. “The news today out of California that High Speed Rail cost estimates have now tripled to the $100 billion range reinforces that Florida made the right decision earlier this year to protect taxpayers from just this sort of boondoggle,” Scott said in a statement. “As I said at the time, High Speed Rail would be far too costly to taxpayers and I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits. I’m glad Florida is no longer entangled in the high speed spending web.” 

Florida Governor Rick Scott. Photo by Gage Skidmore


But bullet train advocates contacted by Transportation Nation were just as quick to call out the Governor for playing politics. “As usual, Rick Scott is putting ideology way ahead of the facts,” wrote Kevin Brubaker, who manages the Midwest High-Speed Rail Network Project of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago. “Florida’s high-speed rail proposal was designed as a public-private partnership with the private sector bearing all the risk for cost overruns.  Private firms were ready to bid on this project, gambling their potential profits against potential cost increases. But Governor Scott never allowed the private sector to do what it does best. Instead, he canceled the project before private firms could bid and before his own government completed their analysis of the project.”

Indeed, as we reported in February, at least eight teams were prepared to answer the Request for Qualifications for the Tampa-to-Orlando line, and Florida had been expected to issue that RFQ within a month of Scott’s cancellation. Nora Friend, the Vice President of Public Affairs and Business Development at the Spanish rail company Talgo, told me then that, factoring in the strength of Disney tourism and the chance to extend the line to Miami. “We feel that the project warrants the risk.”

At any rate, it’s hard to compare the two projects. A full sixty-five percent of the cost estimate increase in California had to do with the number of viaducts and tunnels needed to pass through the mountainous areas of the Pacheco Pass, Tehachapi Mountains, and the San Gabriel Mountains. Those geographical features—and therefore the costs associated with them—would not be a concern between Tampa and Orlando.

What to critics was a weakness of the Florida segment—its relatively short route along what was already a major interstate—was for proponents and potential bidders a strength: The state of Florida already owned the needed right of way, so the engineering and routing challenges were not nearly as complex or unknown as those in California and elsewhere.

Likewise, some of the California project’s major liabilities—its 400-mile length, its passage through major urban population centers, its flexibility as to route—are tied to strengths. The CHSRA’s press release hinted at this when it cast even the new price as a bargain. "As the state’s population grows from 38 million people today to 60 million people by mid-century, it is estimated that without high speed rail California will need as much as $171 billion to meet its transportation needs,” the Authority said, citing “an additional 2,300 lane-miles of highways, 4 runways, and 115 airline gates.”

“With this business plan, the project has grown more expensive, but the plans are also becoming more realistic,” Petra Todorovich, Director of the America 2050 initiative for the Regional Plan Association, told Transportation Nation today. “We now have better information about phasing, costs, ridership, and ticket prices. It is essential that both supporters and opponents monitor the project closely to ensure that this level of transparency persists throughout the life of the project.”

Cost estimates by category for California High Speed rail. Black is the 2009 estimate. Yellow is the new low end and blue is the new high estimate.

Good information and transparency was all that Florida high speed rail advocates wanted from Rick Scott, and the Governor wouldn’t give them either. No matter the conclusions Scott or others draw from the news out of Sacramento this week, the CHSRA has certainly provided a level of transparency that exceeds almost any Californians’ level of curiosity.

Along with the new price tag, the California High-Speed Rail Authority released a set of detailed documents, including a 42-page report detailing the breakdown of cost changes and the reason for them ("There has also been an expansion of key cost items (viaducts, tunnels) consistent with more detailed design and additional geotechnical information.") and a 31-page cost benefit analysis ("The anticipated quantifiable benefits from the CA HSR project exceed their anticipated costs regardless of the phasing or the high/low cost scenarios presented.")

Seventy-three pages of detailed information is unlikely to impress anyone who’s already made their minds up about high speed rail. Whether their contents will mean more to California voters than $98.5 billion remains to be seen.


Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway, which describes the Trans-Texas Corridor battle in great detail. You can follow him on Twitter.