California’s High-Speed Rail project fails to justify itself according to any set of rational criteria. Its ridership projections are absurdly inflated, its environmental benefits are overstated if not actually net detriments, and its cost, its staggering cost, $64 billion by the latest estimate, overwhelms anyone with even a remote sense of financial proportions. To make this final point clear, here is an assortment of California infrastructure projects that could be paid for with a $64 billion budget.
If these projects were built, instead of the bullet train, Californians would have abundant, cheap electricity, abundant fresh water, and upgraded roads and freeways capable of handling all the traffic a surging economy could possibly dish out.
(1) Build 10 natural gas power plants generating 6.2 gigawatts of electrical output for $5.7 billion.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a modern natural gas power plant generating 620 megawatts can be built at a capital cost of $568 million. Someday, when electricity storage technologies are inexpensive and safe, the solar age can ripen to maturity, but in the meantime, California’s private energy companies can tap abundant in-state natural gas reserves, enabling California’s public utilities to provide cheap electricity to the public.
Since California’s peak demand rarely exceeds 50 gigawatts, increasing capacity by 12% will drive the price for electricity way down, making California competitive again with other states. Cheap electricity will also obviate the need to force consumers to purchase extremely expensive “energy sipping” appliances that are internet enabled, monitor your behavior and penalize you if you run your dryer at the “wrong” time, break down a lot, are unnecessarily complex, and require ongoing warranty and software upgrade payments forever.
Who needs that? Build natural gas power plants and develop natural gas.
(2) Build plants to desalinate 1.0 million acre feet of seawater per year, supplying 1/3 of ALL California’s residential (indoor and outdoor) water requirements for $15 billion.
Desalination plants are being developed all over the world, and California, with only one major desalination plant operating (Carlsbad in San Diego), is way behind. Desalination requires no more energy today than the amount of energy already being used to transport water from California’s northern regions several hundred miles south (and over the Tehachapi mountains) to Southern California’s coastal cities. The California current, second in flow volume only to the legendary Gulf Stream, can easily disperse the brine left over after extracting fresh water. The energy and environmental issues surrounding desalination have been addressed, and nobody would ever build these plants more responsibly than Californians.
While desalinating water from the sea, at a capital cost of $15,000 per acre foot of annual output, is the most expensive means of increasing California’s water supply, it has the unique virtue of being the only way to actually create fresh water, as opposed to reuse or redistribution. It is a technology that has been proven at large scale for decades and is a necessary part of California’s strategy to increase water security as the state alternates between wet and dry multi-year weather cycles.
What Californians Could Build on a $64 Billion Budget
(3) Build plants to reclaim and reuse 2.0 million acre feet of sewage per year, supplying 2/3 of ALL California’s residential (indoor and outdoor) water requirements for $10 billion.
Californians produce about 3.0 million acre feet of sewage per year, and today only a small fraction of that sewage is treated to “potable” (drinkable) standards. In California’s huge coastal urban centers this sewage is treated sufficiently to be released into the environment where it wasted as outfall into the ocean. A recent installation in Orange County, the “Ground Water Replenishment System” (GWRS) plant, reclaims as indirect potable water 70,000 acre feet of sewage per year, at a capital cost of only $350 million (not much when compared to the bullet train budget). This equates to a capital cost of $5,000 per acre foot of annual output, which is one of the most cost-effective ways to increase the supply of fresh water for Californians.
Sewage reuse combined with desalination not only have the potential to fulfill 100% of California’s residential water requirements for a combined price of $25 billion, but the treated water can be injected into coastal aquifers, combating saltwater intrusion. Currently these aquifers are often replenished with water transported from rivers hundreds of miles to the north, at equal or greater cost.
(4) Build the Sites Reservoir for $4.4 billion.
Anyone who has taken a look recently at the San Luis Reservoir in Central California, now 100% full, can appreciate the beauty of off-stream storage. Fed by surplus run-off water that is delivered there by aqueduct, and available for farms and urban use, this reservoir minimizes environmental harm because it doesn’t block the flow of any river. Like San Luis and just as big, the proposed Sites Reservoir, with a planned capacity of 1.8 million acre feet, will be situated in the semi-arid foothills of California’s Central Valley. Unlike San Luis, the Sites Reservoir will require almost no aqueduct, because it will be up in the northern Central Valley, immediately west of the Sacramento River. If the Sites were available today, it would already be filled up with runoff from this year’s many storms, and filling it would have taken pressure off of levees from Sacramento all the way to the delta.
The vast, 100% full San Luis reservoir, 84 square miles, holding 2.0 MAF.
(5) Build the Temperance Flats Reservoir for $3.3 billion.
While this proposed reservoir is in-stream, and would dam the San Joaquin River, it nonetheless has virtues that make a strong argument for its construction. First of all, there are already dams on the San Joaquin River, which would be submerged beneath the larger Temperance Flat dam. With planned storage of 1.3 million acre feet, the Temperance Flat reservoir would guarantee more water to farmers in the dryer reaches of the San Joaquin Valley even during droughts. It would also ensure a reliable flow into the San Joaquin river, to protect its riparian habitats during droughts.
(6) Widen and resurface every major interstate (and then some) in the entire state.
Are you tired of risking your life on Interstate 5 when it’s only two lanes in each direction, and trucks clog the slow lane and speeding tailgaters own the fast lane? Then spend $15.4 billion to add lanes and resurface the entire length of Highway 101 (807 miles), Interstate 5 (796 miles), Route 99 (415 miles), Interstate 15 (294 miles), Interstate 10 (243 miles), Interstate 80 (204 miles), and Interstate 8 (172 miles). According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, this will cost $5.25 million per mile, and the freeways just listed total 2,931 miles.
(7) Fix the Potholes.
With everything noted so far, we have only used up $53.8 billion. That is, for only 84% of the bullet train budget, we have delivered to Californians cheap, abundant energy, abundant water, and unclogged our major freeways. But we still have $10.2 billion left. What to do? Why not fix the potholes? For $10.2 billion, we can resurface 8,160 miles of 4-lane roads, or, presumably, an even greater length of 2-lane roads. Isn’t that the first thing that goes when governments go astray, and prioritize pet (and useless) environmentalist mega-projects ahead of serving the public? Potholes?
Apart from the fact that a few farms have been purchased in Fresno County, and a few pylons have been stuck in the ground, and a handful of extremely well-paid bureaucrats are doing everything they can to preserve their jobs, why is high speed rail still being pushed? The reasons are a disappointing example of our dysfunctional democracy here in California. Because you could accuse every project on the above list of being susceptible to cronyism and cost-overruns, and you’d be right. Just as the Bullet Train will never get built for a mere $64 billion, it is likely these projects will also, in aggregate cost more than $64 billion. But we’d have abundant energy, abundant water, and a 21st century network of wide, upgraded freeways. If you’re going to play the innately corrupt game of public works, build things that help people live better, more prosperous lives!
Instead, California contends with an alliance of financial oligarchs whose pecuniary interests depend on Californians paying punitive prices for energy and water. Their green energy and high-tech ventures depend on forcing Californians to completely retool their homes with new, upgraded appliances (all of them – washer, dryer, dishwasher, air-conditioner, furnace, refrigerator) that are efficient to the point of diminishing returns. As mentioned, these appliances now double as surveillance devices that will force us to live our lives according to utility company algorithms. Utility companies, of course, no longer make profits based on the quantities of energy or water they deliver, but rather on fixed percentages over cost, which means to please their shareholders, units of energy and water have to cost more. Much more. And manufacturers are thrilled to design all this frippery into their appliances so they can sell them as a service requiring perpetual payments, instead of a durable good.
Our household has a washer that we bought, already used, for $25 in 1999. It has never broken down. No ongoing warranty payments. No ongoing “software update” payments. Do you think you’ll be able to say any of that about any appliance purchased in the last few years?
For anyone who wants this lucrative, exploitative party for the oligarchs to continue, high speed rail is a good place to put what remains of California’s public financing capacity. The environmentalist lobby, firmly in the pocket of these oligarchs, offers up high speed rail to private construction unions, who lack the clout or the vision to demand something that might actually adhere to their ideals – i.e., the projects listed above, that would help ordinary working families in California.
Ed Ring is the vice president of policy research for the California Policy Center.
(1-a) Cost for modern natural gas power plant generating 620 megawatts
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
(1-b) Peak megawatt demand in California (July 24, 2006) just over 50 gigawatts
Source: California ISO, California Peak Load History 1998 through 2016
(2-a) Cost for desalination plants – global comparisons:
Source: California Policy Center, Rebuilding California’s Infrastructure – Desalination
Recently constructed desalination plants in Israel, rest-of-world, and California:
(2-b) Annual water consumption in California (million acre feet):
Source: Public Policy Institute of California – Uses and Value of Water, Table 2.2
(3) Cost for sewage reuse plants:
Orange County GWRS IPR Project (2008) Fountain Valley
Source: California Policy Center, Rebuilding California’s Infrastructure – Water Reuse
(4) Most recent and highest cost-estimate for Sites Reservoir:
Source: KCRA News
(5) Highest cost-estimate for Temperance Flat Reservoir (estimates range from $1.2 billion to $3.3 billion):
Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
(6 and 7 – a) Cost to add lanes and resurface freeways:
Source: America Road & Transportation Builders Association
(6 and 7 – b) Length of California’s principal highways and freeways: