The most important HSR news right now is the recent revelation on the LA Times, strategically made immediately after the state legislature had voted to appropriate the required money to begin construction, that the California HSR Authority had brushed off an offer from SNCF, which came with funding attached, to take over and build the project. SNCF’s offer would run trains through I-5 all the way instead of the chosen route vaguely along State Route 99, bypassing Bakersfield and Fresno.
Stephen Smith, who’s talked to the same sources who spoke with the LA Times, says that SNCF was interested in either I-5 or a greenfield alignment just west of SR 99 that would serve Bakersfield and Fresno with edge-of-urban area stations, though I-5 was “the only alignment… that private backers felt was financially viable.”
Although in 2009 SNCF submitted a document proposing to build the project along the chosen alignment, serving Bakersfield and Fresno at city-center stations, the document is stamped “Do not circulate outside government,” and the source says explicitly that the HSR Authority had pressured SNCF not to say anything about alignments, and more recently rejected its I-5 (or west-of-99) proposal out of hand. The HSR Authority responded, brushing off some of the article’s concerns and raising what is essentially FUD: HSR Authority Chair Dan Richard made sure to mention the manufactured controversy over the fact that SNCF had been forced by the Nazis to help ship Jews to extermination camps.
I do not have any access to sources, confidential or otherwise, but at least some analysis of this can be made from public information. The key cost numbers the LA Times provided are,
The I-5 route would have been the shortest, fastest and lowest-cost alignment, with a price tag of about $38 billion — sharply less than the rail authority’s current route, which has been estimated at various times to cost $34 billion, $43 billion, $98 billion and now $68 billion.
The problem: the cost of the Central Valley segment is a sufficiently small portion of the cost that it can’t possibly make the entire or even most of difference between $38 billion and the current price tag. It’s unclear to me what $38 billion should be compared to – 2010 dollars or year-of-expenditure dollars, and the Blended Plan ($68 billion YOE) or the full Phase 1 ($98 billion YOE) – but the lowest number, the Blended Plan in 2010 dollars, is $53 billion, $15 billion more than SNCF’s proposal. I have asked what exactly the comparable Authority number is and will update when I get an answer.
In contrast, the Initial Construction Segment, which includes a large majority of the Phase 1 Central Valley segment (though not the most difficult part, through Bakersfield) is $5.2 billion in 2010 dollars (see PDF-page 15 of the 2010 business plan); the actual money appropriated is just over $6 billion, but if we’re doing YOE numbers then we must compare $38 to $68 and then the difference doubles. Since the cost of construction along I-5, although lower than along the chosen route with its viaducts and grade separations, is nonzero, we get that a relatively small fraction of the cost difference, perhaps a quarter or a third, is attributable to this design choice.
So if it’s not just I-5, what is it, and what can we learn from this? I believe the results should if anything make the HSR Authority look even worse than it already does in light of this story and its lackluster response. This is because it means the entire amount of money required to build to SNCF’s specs but serve Bakersfield and Fresno, at edge-of-urban-area stations if the cities object to the noise of trains through downtown (which at least Fresno does not), is a small number of billions of dollars. This means that if service to those two cities was the true dealbreaker, the Authority could have asked SNCF to change the alignment back to the chosen route or a greenfield route just west of it, and then demanded that Fresno and Bakersfield pay for the difference.
Fresno had been hoping to use statewide HSR money to bundle its own project of grade-separating the freight tracks through the city along the Union Pacific right-of-way. The poor relationship between the HSR Authority and Union Pacific dashed the plans to use its right-of-way where it is superior to the BNSF alignment. That said, the threat of being left out of the network entirely could have induced it to come up with money for this on its own; the segment of the project through the Fresno area is $1-1.5 billion. A downtown station in Bakersfield is more difficult, especially if one gets from the Central Valley to the LA Basin via the Grapevine rather than via Palmdale, but in Bakersfield there are some complaints about the impacts that a downtown alignment would cause, and at any rate even I-5 would come close to serving the urban area.
In addition, portions of the cost savings that do not come from alignment choice have to be attributed to superior cost control. Part of the difference between American and rest-of-world construction costs has to come from more mundane issues such as proper supervision of contractors, since the difference is large and persistent and remains in place even after one controls for such issues as the percentage of the route that is in tunnel. (For example, recall that the Tohoku Shinkansen extension cost $4.6 billion for 82 km, of which a third is just one long tunnel and another sixth additional shorter tunnels).
The other lesson we can learn from this episode is political, regarding cost escalations and strategic misrepresentation. Too many political transit supporters downplay the issue. LightRailNow claims that a cost escalation that occurs before construction starts is not a cost escalation, but just a more accurate cost estimate; Robert Cruickshank did not quite say the same when the 2010 business plan for CAHSR revealed costs had doubled, but came close to it by describing the plan as more careful and thorough. In reality, large bombshell reports shortly after money has been obligated are a hallmark of secretive, untrustworthy planning, precisely the kind likeliest to lie about costs.
The main problem with megaprojects is not the dollar cost. In the grand scheme of things, a lot of them can generate enough social rate of return, and sometimes even a purely financial rate of return; at any rate, even when they are cost-ineffective, they are a small proportion of total GDP. The problem is getting politicians to vote for them. This means that issues such as institutional inertia are in play. It’s harder to get people to rescind money than to get them to vote against spending money.
If the primary cause of cost escalations is unforeseeable challenges, then we will see them come in timed with engineering developments, contract awards, and actual construction. If instead it is strategic misrepresentation, then they will be timed to come just after major political hurdles regarding funding: the passage of a referendum, legislative funding, an electoral victory by a supportive politician. The California HSR bombshells aren’t quite this clean, but they come a lot closer to the outright lying hypothesis.