Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Why can't we build public infrastructure anymore?

The California High-Speed Rail Authority today released their updated Business Plan for 2009 (via CHSR Blog). There are two major highlights- first, due to an accounting difference that now requires the HSRA to include inflation, the costs of the project have moved up from $35bn to $42bn. The actual budget hasn't changed at all, just the way we count it. This won't stop anti-HSR folks from railing against it, but we can try.

The second, though, is more worrying. The estimated fares have gone up as well- from 50% of airfare to 83% of airfare. And the rationale for doing this? They want to provide a good return-on-investment for private investors in the project, and they would do this by reducing "operating costs" (demand, and therefore the level of service provided) and extracting more revenue from those who chose to ride it. It's not because 50% of airfare isn't profitable- it is. It's because it's not profitable ENOUGH to attract bankers' attention.

Which leads me to my point. Why is it, exactly, that we're trying to build a massive bit of public infrastructure with private money? Why do we expect our trains to be a good return-on-investment? I'm all for setting fares at a level that require no operating subsidy- with the recent STA debacle, that's just good politics, and doable for a system like this. But to cater to the whims of Wall Street when we build public goods like HSR? This is simply ridiculous.

More to the point, when was the last time you heard anyone calling for a freeway to be profitable? (Or, for that matter, even unsubsidized?) When did we build our airports and overpasses to provide the best ROI? No, we build all these other transportation projects to provide the most public benefit possible. According to the CA-HSRA's own Business Plan, the way to do that is to set fares at 50% of airfare, producing nearly double the ridership in the first year, and around 30% more by 2035. This gets the most people off our roads and out of our airports as possible, and moves more people by clean, renewable electricity than any other option studied. Fares at 50% of airfare keeps the train operations sustainable while providing the most return-on-investment for the taxpayers, the citizens of California, who asked for this thing to be built. As far as I'm concerned, that ought to be the only criteria evaluated, and Wall Street can suck it.

Fortunately for advocates, this battle is far from over. We've yet to even break ground on this project, let alone start setting fare policies. Write the CA-HSRA and tell them to build a public project for the public good.

No comments: