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Southwest Airlines, flaws and all, is still superior to the high-speed rail project

Rarely has a posting on Twitter made me laugh. But such was the case last week when the California High Speed Rail Authority sent out a tweet hoping to capitalize on the air travel meltdown due to winter storms.

The implication was that California’s rail project would be a superior alternative to that offered by airlines. Indeed, a supporter of HSR, Sen. Scott Weiner tweeted, “The Southwest Airlines meltdown reiterates the critical need for California to create a statewide high speed rail system.”

Here’s what the Authority sent out, minus the slick animation of a yet-to-be-built train: “!!Californians (sic) deserve the quick, efficient, and reliable travel alternative that much of the world already enjoys. With top speeds of 220 mph, high-speed rail will get you from SF to LA in under 3 hours, permanently transforming transportation in CA.”

Notice how the posting begins with not one, but two, exclamation points, as if announcing that Californians had better hurry to buy tickets. The tweet generated a list of comments longer than the imaginary track between Los Angeles and San Francisco. While a fair number of comments were from HSR supporters — most likely uninformed or those with a financial stake — far more comments were savagely critical. Among those who recognize the endless failures of the boondoggle is Democratic Sen. Steve Glazer who posted, “HSR has no financial plan to connect to LA or SF by 2030 or beyond. PR can’t solve this fact.” Other comments demonstrated that critics of high-speed rail span the political spectrum.

This column has criticized HSR from its inception. Californians were promised a super-fast train that would travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco in about two and a half hours; the ticket price would be about $50; the total cost of the high-speed rail would be about $40 billion; and there would be significant private-sector support to build the project. Every single one of those promises has been broken.

Even before the 2008 vote, transportation experts were warning that the project would become a massive black hole into which California taxpayers would be committed to pouring hundreds of billions of dollars. In fact, a 2008 study sponsored by the Reason Foundation and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation predicted that the promised total cost of $45 billion would quickly turn into $100 billion or more, stating, “There are no genuine financial projections that indicate there will be sufficient funds.” The only error in the study now appears that the dollar amount was too low.

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As HSR project failures mount, so does the opposition from those who once were supporters. A former Chairman of the High Speed Rail Authority, Quentin Kopp, is now a critic. And just this past October, Business Insider reported, “The Société nationale des chemins de fer français (SNCF), a French state-owned railroad operator, came to California in hopes of helping the state build a high-speed rail system from Los Angeles to San Francisco but left for North Africa in 2011 because the region was ‘less politically dysfunctional’ than the Golden State. Within 7 years, they built a functioning high-speed rail system in Morocco, the New York Times reported.”

As for Southwest Airlines, not much needs to be said. Few airlines had more problems than Southwest, which was forced to cancel hundreds of flights, not just due to storms, but a breakdown of the system that schedules flight crews. There is no question Southwest Airlines is scraping egg off its face. But the fact is it took less than a week before the airline was up and running again. As for high-speed rail? Fifteen years and still counting.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

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