Would it be cheaper to just fly every Californian to Japan?

December 29, 2014 | By JOSHUA THOMPSON

I follow The Onion on Twitter.  It is a news parody site, and it is regularly hilarious.  Over the weekend it tweeted, “Ambitious High-Speed Rail Plan Will Fly Americans To Japan To Use Their Trains onion.com/1Am4dk1 #OurAnnualYear.”  The linked article talks about an “ambitious” $80 billion plan by President Obama to subsidize plane tickets to Japan so that Americans can use high speed rail.  The tweet made me wonder whether this would actually be a cheaper plan than the current high-speed rail plan in place in California. I decided to crunch some numbers.

First, I needed to figure out the cost of California’s high speed rail project. In 2012, the High-Speed Rail Authority estimated the cost to be $91.4 billion through 2033. [Note that this is actually more expensive than The Onion’s parody plan.]  I do not know if that figure includes such things as litigation costs, costs of eminent domain, the costs of racial preferences, the annual losses high-speed rail is expected to incur, or a litany of other seen and unseen costs, but let’s make $91.4 billion the target number anyway.  Would it be possible to fly every Californian to Japan — and buy each a ticket on Japan’s high-speed rail — for under $91.4 billion?

California has approximately 40 million people. A one-way coach ticket to Tokyo from Los Angeles costs approximately $500.  A round-trip ticket is less than $1000. Therefore, every Californian could get a round-trip ticket to Japan for a cost of about $40 billion.  A round trip ticket on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto costs about 20,000 Yen or $165 dollars. The cost for every Californian to take that trip on the bullet train would therefore be about $6.6 billion. So the total cost for flying every California round-trip to Tokyo, and buying each a round-trip bullet train ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto, is $46.6 billion.  That’s about half the cost of building California’s high-speed rail system.

I am shocked. When I began this post, I anticipated a number of ways I could cut costs to make the numbers work. I figured I could show that one-way tickets could be purchased for under $91.4 million.  Then I thought I could look for group fare rates for both flights and bullet train tickets.  After all, airlines must give discounts for 40 million guaranteed tickets. I even looked up the cost of buying an Airbus A380 ($414 million), and began to look into the cost of jet fuel. Surely California could drive the cost down from the $40 billion coach fares by buying its own gigantic plane and flying everyone itself.  But those calculations are not necessary.  California can fly everyone coach to Japan, buy them a bullet train ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto, and fly them coach back to California for about half the initial anticipated cost of California’s High-Speed Rail boondoggle. Heck, California could thrown in two nights at the Kyoto Ritz-Carlton to each Californian and still come out on top.

Obviously the high cost of politician-generated government projects is nothing new, so it’s no surprise that Jerry Brown’s pet project is ridiculously expensive.  And the fiscal impact of high-speed rail in California is only one of the many, many problems that have been pegged to it. But if the goal is to get Californians to ride high speed rail, it’s sadly ironic that The Onion has a more fiscally sound method of accomplishing that goal than California’s governor.