High-Speed Rail. The Bullet Train. The 19th Century concept of rail travel, updated using 21st Century technology that will speed passengers from Los Angeles to the Bay Area in about 2 hours and 40 minutes. Barely enough time to enjoy a casual meal, and maybe settle in with a cocktail, while enjoying California’s blurred landscape as it rushes by at 220 miles per hour.
As for the costs of this project? No worries. We were assured that several sources of funding were available, that California’s taxpayers would be protected from future funding obligations. In 2008 California’s voters passed Proposition 1A, a $9.95 billion bond measure to help finance the project, projected to cost around $40 billion. In 2014 the Legislature allocated 25% of annual auction revenues from the state’s cap-and-trade program for high-speed-rail, which so far has amounted to about $700 million per year. The federal government also provided $2.5 billion in 2009 and another $929 million in 2010. Voters were told that the only state investment would be from Prop. 1A bonds, that the state would only provide 30% of total funding, and all remaining funding would come from federal, private and local sources. Taxpayer subsidies for any planned train service were prohibited. Construction would not begin until all revenues were in hand to finish the initial segment with actual train service set to begin. The entire project would be completed by 2020.
Of course now reality has set in, even for many of the project’s Democrat supporters in the State Legislature. The promises made to California’s voters have been forgotten. All of the iron-clad guarantees we were told would ensure the economic viability of this project, and protect California taxpayers from long-term fiscal calamity have proven to be untrue. Costs are astronomical, and according to projections could reach $100 billion. That would make this the third most costly construction project in the history of the world, behind the International Space Station and the entire 47,000 mile Interstate Highway System. Federal funding is uncertain; there are no private funds.
No ground breaking without funding? That guarantee didn’t last long. In 2016 that promise was thrown out, when the Democrat-controlled Legislature allowed the High-Speed-Rail authority to start construction on the first segment without any hope of finishing the initial project. Construction is still underway on that segment, which will connect Madera with an almond grove in Shafter. This short, rural line will never generate enough revenue to sustain itself; taxpayer subsidies will be required in perpetuity. And it’s a single-track line. How do trains traveling in opposite directions at over 100 miles per hour pass each other on a single track? No funding is available for stations, no funding for a maintenance facility (apparently the trains will never break down), no grade separations, and train speeds have been greatly reduced, seemingly invalidating the entire rational for the project. Even with these massive and unrealistic cutbacks, this segment is still $1 billion short. Connecting the Central Valley line to the Bay Area would require an additional $20 billion, which we simply don’t have. As for the 2020 completion date, High-Speed-Rail is now at least 13 years behind schedule.
Where do we go from here? Governor Newsom has requested $4.2 billion to complete the Central Valley link. So far that money has not been allocated since many of the Governor’s Democratic allies in the Legislature are finally looking at these facts and getting cold feet. Many of those legislators come from Los Angeles County, and with a quarter of the state’s population, they’d like to see money spent where it can do more good, including improvements to LA’s commuter rail system. Completing a small rural rail line in the middle of the Central Valley that very few will use doesn’t begin to compare with mass transit that can be used by thousands in heavily urbanized areas such as LA, or metropolitan San Diego for that matter.
There is a way out, an “off-ramp.” The federal government required California’s High-Speed-Rail Authority to have a contingency plan to salvage funds spent on the initial project if it faced “significant delay.” Obviously, we now have significant delays. A so-called “Plan B” was submitted to the federal government in 2016, and was updated in 2019. Once construction on the first segment of track between Madera and Shafter is completed, the track would be turned over to Amtrak, to be used for its existing San Joaquin service to improve travel times, and hopefully increase ridership and reduce state subsidies.
Continuing to double down and waste vast sums of taxpayer dollars on this boondoggle is untenable. Cutting our losses, getting the value we can out of funds already spent, and spending scarce revenues on more deserving transportation projects that actually make sense should be our path forward.
If we don’t bail out now, California’s High-Speed-Rail project is heading for the biggest train wreck in history.