"Why do we want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn't leave where you want it to leave, doesn't start where you want it to start, doesn't end where you want it to end? And it doesn't go all the time . . . That's why everyone doesn't like (public transit) . . . . That's why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want."
- Elon Musk commenting on public transit
Elon Musk has never been my favorite guy based solely on his leech business model that relies heavily on upfront tax subsidies to build Tesla vehicles and out-the-door tax credits for buyers to sell his vehicles. But you've got to give the devil his due for seeing things with clarity. Just like his admittedly shrewd business plan that taps into the politically correct position of showering green initiatives with plenty of green harvested from taxpayers, Musk gets what ails most grandiose massive transit projects for much of the United States outside of select lines such as New York City subways and heavy rail service in super congested commuter corridors.
High-speed rail in California, as it is now unfolding, is a colossal boondoggle. All of the consultants who are paid to come up with an analysis that offers favorable high-speed rail ridership projections do so for two reasons. They are doing it in a hypothetical vacuum because there is nothing to compare the Los Angeles to San Francisco corridor to other than air travel and driving besides extremely convoluted and choppy Amtrak service. At the same time if they don't come up with a model that isn't based on any hard data gleaned from previous high speed rail ridership in California between the north and south that actually shows the thing can economically work, the next time Sacramento is doling out $500,000 consultant jobs they won't get the gig.
Musk, of course, favors his Hyperloop transport he's compared to a vacuum tube system like that used to move documents such as from the drive-up lanes at banks that carries bank transactions back and forth between driver/customer and teller. He contends he can create a system that will move people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes at a fourth of the cost for a high-speed ticket and could be built for almost a 10th of the cost.
Ironically, high-speed rail supporters tend to think this is Buck Rogers stuff as well as being technically unfeasible, and unrealistically priced, with way too rosy of assumptions about potential ridership. It sounds like they could be talking about high-speed rail that with every passing year is taking on the persona of a dodo bird in terms of its long-term survival viability. Not only is it not flexible like vehicle travel or even airplanes that are only restricted by having a place to take off and land as opposed to rail that is essentially glued in place with industrial strength Super Glue, but it is extremely costly.
In case you haven't noticed, high-speed rail as it stands today is slipping backwards toward the ultimate status of a jacked up heavy rail system and not a cutting-edge transportation system. It is so far behind schedule that a kindergartner today is most likely to be governor before "real" 100 percent high-speed rail runs from Los Angeles to San Francisco. And then it will be obsolete before it is fully functional. At best it will end up as a glorified version of Amtrak with subsidized service for long distance travel between cities as opposed to rail service on heavily traveled commuter corridors. At worst it'll become an albatross around the neck of California taxpayers.
It is still not too late to reconfigure high-speed rail to serve the congested commute corridors from Riverside and San Bernardino counties and Los Angeles as well as the Central Valley to the Bay Area.
To achieve the volume of paying passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco to justify the expense is an incredibly outrageous leap of faith it relies on other public transit and ultimately private vehicles to get a paying passenger from Point A to Point Z. High-speed train station to high-speed train station is more like going from Point G to Point R leaving the passenger dependent on other means to begin and end the trip. Then when they get to their destination at Point Z unless they are moving around San Francisco they will have to fend for private transportation whether it is Lyft, Uber, a rental car, or a friend giving them a lift to get about.
It makes the real cost of traveling from the LA area to the Bay Area more expensive for most Californians. It is also - as Musk points out - highly inconvenient for most people.
Besides being over promised, whittled back, expensive, having questionable ridership projects, lacking adequate funds to complete (remember voters were told private investors would be tripping over each other to put up the next $60 billion or so after we bonded ourselves for $9.9 billion) and will be obsolete and half-baked when the linking of LA and the Bay Area is complete, what is there not to like about high-speed rail?
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.