Tell ’em they’re dreamin’

A plan to connect Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney through high-speed rail has been released and its backers say it won’t cost taxpayers a cent.

The ambitious proposal calls for the construction of eight new inland cities between the capital cities, in a bid to reduce the pressure of growing population in Melbourne and Sydney.

Land has already been secured in a number of regional hubs.
The long-awaited plan was released on Wednesday by private company Consolidated Land and Rail Australia Pty Ltd (CLARA), which has partnered with international companies including GE, Aecom, RMIT and the CSIRO.

It’s expected to come with a hefty price tag but CLARA chairman Nick Cleary says the infrastructure can be paid for from the city development rather than government coffers.

He says the business model will be privately funded through the use of land value capture.

“Not only is CLARA seeking to build the world’s largest high-speed rail infrastructure to date, the rail network is just part of a wider plan providing a quantum leap forward for the development of inland Australia,” Mr Cleary said.

Yeah because it worked so well in California

The high-speed rail project is a classic example of how concentrated benefits and diffused costs shape public policy, even when the general public has a direct say. Back in 2008, the bond referendum faced no organized opposition. Voters might have preferred that the money go to schools, parks, roads, social services or even local trains, but those alternatives weren’t on the ballot. It was an up-down vote on whether to let a tiny bit of tax money per person go to fund a really cool train — and all the companies that would work on building it. Voters looked at the streamlined concept images and thought, Wouldn’t that be great? Whoosh!

But a closer look even back then would have made it clear that, barring a miracle, the rail project wouldn’t keep its promises. To do so, it would have to be the fastest, most popular bullet train in the world, with many more riders per mile and a much greater percentage of seats occupied than the French and Japanese systems — a highly unlikely prospect. Yet only the most determined wonk would have discovered these comparisons.

Some of those who knew better still succumbed to the glamour of the idea. “There’s something undeniably alluring about a bullet train — the technology is so powerful, the speed so breathtaking, it makes quotidian trips seem exotic,” opined the Times’s editorial board in October 2008. Admitting that “it seems close to a lead-pipe cinch that the California High-Speed Rail Authority will ask for many billions more in the coming decades, and the Legislature will have to scrape up many millions of dollars in operating subsidies,” it nonetheless concluded that “we still think voters should give in to the measure’s gleaming promise.” Give in they did.

Like many large projects promoted by the body that has to pay for it, the assumptions and business cases are decidedly dodgy. Ultimately, it is the ratepayers and taxpayers who have to pay, and pay, and pay….long after the idiots who promoted the scheme disappear.

Someone needs to call Darryl Kerrigan and he should tell them they’re dreamin’.

But if they throw in some jousting sticks…and a pulpit then it might just work.



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