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Green Economics

California's high speed rail hits a speed bump

The head of California's multi-billion dollar high speed rail project has resigned, and the question remains: can the state really finance such a big project?

By Guest blogger / January 13, 2012

China's CRH high-speed trains sit on tracks at a maintenance base in Wuhan, in central China's Hubei province, Wednesday Jan. 11, 2012. California's own high-speed rail project has hit a few snags, including a lack of financing and the recent resignation of California High Speed Rail authority CEO Roelof van Ark .

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The head of California's High Speed Rail project has resigned.  You would think that a multi-billion dollar, 30 year project would offer some intellectual challenges for its leader but "Roelof van Ark, chief executive officer of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, announced this afternoon that he is quitting, the latest setback for the state's beleaguered campaign to build a nearly $100 billion rail network in California."

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Mathew is an economics professor at UCLA and has written three books: Green Cities (Brookings Institution Press); Heroes and Cowards (Princeton University Press, jointly with Dora L. Costa); and in fall 2010, Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter World (Basic Books).

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What is going on?  We know that California and the Federal Government both have large fiscal deficits and this may be part of the issue but what happened to the momentum?  

As a guy who flies to Northern California often, and who has traveled on a Chinese Bullet train,  I haven't supported this train.  I figure that for political reasons that it will stop too often between San Fran, LA and San Diego and thus never achieve the MPH that it has promised.   I assume that its ridership will be too low to cover the enormous fixed cost of constructing it.  Once people arrive in these cities, and get off the train --- they will still need a car to connect them with their ultimate destination --- so, the real issue here is what is wrong with air travel?  I know that HSR has a smaller carbon footprint than air travel but what would have to be the value per ton of GHG emissions for HSR to be a wise investment?  I would guess that it would have to be close to the $200 per ton that was calculated for the Cash for Clunkers program.

In the absence of Federal subsidies, how will California finance this train?   $100 billion dollars in a state with 35 million people works out to $3,000 for each man, woman and child.   Are we willing to pay that average cost? 

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