Despite rising price tag of high speed rail, fares are projected to decline

The projected cost of the state’s high-speed rail project has more than doubled since 2009, but architects of the plan insist it won’t cost passengers any more to ride the trains between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

For figures detailing how details have changed between the 2009 and 2011 business plans for the state’s high-speed rail project, click on the photo to the right.

In fact, according to the latest projections released last week, the California High Speed Rail Authority says fares will actually go down even though the cost of the project is now estimated at an astronomical $98 billion.

In the 2009 business plan, when the project was estimated to cost $43 billion, the Rail Authority forecast one-way fares at $105 from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Now, the Authority projects the average cost will be $81. With enough notice, a one-way ticket could cost $52, and even a last-minute fare from L.A. to The City would top out at $123.

Alain Enthoven, a Stanford professor and opponent to the high-speed rail project, called those fare estimates “absurd.”

“Those are phony projections,” Enthoven said. “Comparisons across the world show that high-speed travel is much more expensive.”

The Authority has said that high-speed rail can break even — and eventually make a significant profit — without operating subsidies. However, Enthoven said, one-way fares from Los Angeles to San Francisco would have to be about $184 for that to happen. He pointed out that high-speed rail projects in Japan and Europe are subsidized and still charge roughly double the fare amount that the Authority is projecting.

Rachel Wall, a spokesperson for the Authority, said cost revision of the project is unrelated to the fare structure for high-speed trains. Though the price of high-speed rail has risen, the Authority is projecting to tap into private financing and federal government sources — not fare receipts — as the way to pay for the more expensive project.

The fares must be competitive with airplane tickets and gas prices for enough passengers to ride the system, which is why the Authority is not projecting any increase in ticket costs, Wall said. Even at its lowest ridership projections, the Authority is still estimating to net $325 million annually from high-speed rail operations.

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, a fiscal watchdog group, isn’t buying that logic.

“Those fares going to have to be prohibitively expensive for this project to run without a subsidy,” Koupal said. “And right now, I can go online and book a ticket for $100 and fly into any one of the six airports in the LA area.”

The Authority’s new business plan will be available for public review for the next 60 days before its goes for approval at the State Legislature in January.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said he is still a compassionate supporter of the plan, despite the cost revisions.

“Right now, what is most needed is our jobs,” Lee said. “And this will create 128,000 jobs in the Bay Area.”