Campaign Q&A: Tom Schatz

Tom Schatz is the president of Citizens Against Government Waste. We spoke last week at an event calling for defeat of the $10 billion Prop. 1A high speed rail bond. Between now and the election, we will feature some more interviews with people both for and against some of the initiatives on the November ballot.

What are the key changes that would be needed in order to make a viable high speed rail system?
It really has to be started from scratch. The assumptions were too optimistic, based on speeds and ridership and construction and bond costs that just aren’t realistic, based not only on US experience but on international experience. The closest that could be compared is the Acela line between Washington and Boston where the density is about the same as the population that would be covered in California. The ridership is much lower than predicted.

What’s happened with the Acela line, as has happened in this projection in California, is you can’t go as fast as projected in urban areas. I’ve ridden both the Acela line and the regular Amtrak lines. Everybody was all excited about the Acela, it seemed like it would be worth the cost difference. I’ll ride the Acela if someone else pays for it. But it’s not worth it to save 20 or so minutes, because the cost differential is so great.

Didn’t that come up in the Elliot Spitzer scandal?
He paid for her?

No, he put her on the slower train.
(Note—Spitzer put “Kristen” on a non-express train from New York to Washington DC, which is not considered a high speed rail line).
See, even he was thinking, at least at that point. The other point that was mentioned, if you take into account the additional time of driving to a train station, waiting for a train, getting your ticket, and you look at the time it takes to get from Sacramento to San Francisco, it will almost always be cheaper to drive. There is almost no way it will be faster and cheaper to take a train, unless gas prices went to $50 a gallon.

Gas prices could go up, anything could happen, obviously we have a really terrible financial situation. Given the state’s budget problems, the national financial problems, certainly given the financial markets, it’s unlikely that someone would come in with the bond financing at this point. All those assumptions really should be changed. They’re simply not realistic. It would have to be a smaller system, there would probably have to be higher subsidies than they’ve talked about, and they’d have to charge more. Which of course would discourage people from taking the train. It also assumes there will be few changes in terms of competitive alternatives or rise. If the airlines see competition, they may lower their prices.

We’re talking about a 30 year bet on the cost of oil. If I were a betting man, I would bet on up.
Oh sure. But you can’t make a precise projection. And there might be alternatives that would make it much cheaper to drive. Say hybrids go up dramatically, it will change the cost.

We always hear about the subsidies going to rail. We hear much less about the subsidies going to roads or airports.
You have the gas tax paying for roads. You have the aviation tax and the passenger use tax paying for the airports. So there is in essence a user tax to pay for those expenses. The reason that the federal government just added $8 billion to the highway trust fund was that there wasn’t enough money in the trust fund from the gas tax, one of the rare times that has occurred.

The other point we made with the big highway bill in 2005 was that if you’re going to base it on the gas tax, you have to live and die by the gas tax. You have $24 billion of pork in that bill, and we have an $8 billion shortfall. If they hadn’t built or paid for bridges to nowhere, they’d have a lot of extra money.

Just look at the discussion about that one extra stop that was added. If you add stops, politicians will look and say “I want a stop over here, I want a stop over there.” It’s going to get slower and longer and more expensive. If they’re basing projections on where they think the greatest ridership will be, there is at least some rationale about where the rail should run. Anything that’s added in between slows everything down. Look at the Acela. They picked the major stops and stuck with it. But if some member of Congress came along and said I want to add this stop, that would change all the project

To answer your original question–How could it work? This one can’t work. The High Speed Rail Authority needs to go back to the drawing board and look at realistic assumptions based not just on US but international experience, and come up with a plan that makes sense. Maybe it is just certain segments. The only one (East Coast high speed rail line) is Washington to Boston. There’s a reason for that. It doesn’t work as well as expected. But it’s still better than anything else that has come about in planning around the country.

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