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Desperate Rail Gambit

eye on the news

Desperate Rail Gambit

Phony cost estimates or not, California’s high-speed rail plan wins a court’s approval. March 11, 2016
California
Economy, finance, and budgets

San Francisco’s colorful former mayor Willie Brown caused a stir three years ago by writing some disturbing truths about major government infrastructure projects. The city’s Transbay Terminal project—billed as a future “Grand Central Station of the West”—was running $300 million over budget. Brown argued that no one should be shocked by such overruns, and that “we always knew” the estimate was artificially low. “In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment,” he wrote. “If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

Brown’s column was—and still is—widely quoted because California officials are busy advancing the largest infrastructure project ever built by the state. The California High Speed Rail project, energized by a statewide ballot initiative in 2008 that provided initial bond funding of $9.95 billion, seems to be exactly the kind of project Brown had in mind.

In terms of pricing and design, the current project bears little resemblance to the detailed promises made in Proposition 1A. The original price tag was less than $40 billion but quickly ballooned to $118 billion. Governor Jerry Brown ratcheted the number down to $64 billion—not that any number really means anything at this point. To get these proposed costs down, rail backers had to void one of the project’s core promises: that the train would connect Los Angeles to San Francisco (via the San Joaquin Valley) in two hours and 40 minutes. The updated plan requires “bullet” trains to share commuter tracks in the two main congested metropolitan areas, slowing travel time significantly.

The latest draft business plan, released last month, offers a reality check for anyone who thinks that the $64 billion price tag is even close to accurate. The rail authority had planned to break ground in Fresno and build tracks to the Los Angeles basin, but getting from the valley into Southern California means going over or under the Tehachapi Mountains, a large and geologically complex barrier. “[P]roject engineers are now analyzing solutions critics say could break the project’s budget or, just as bad, add too much travel time,” the Bakersfield Californian reported in 2014. “None of this is a deal-breaker, a spokeswoman for the California High-Speed Rail Authority said. She declined to go into details but insisted the agency will present a refined route over the Tehachapis.”

Instead of a refined route, the authority has decided to skip Southern California for now, and first take the much easier—and less costly—route to San Jose. Opponents have pinned their hopes on a legal challenge. But the same Sacramento Superior Court judge who previously found that the project had violated funding-related terms of Prop. 1A (but was later overruled) gave the project the green light in early March.

Willie Brown would understand. The goal is to get started and worry about the costs and details later. If Californians really knew the cost, nothing would get built. Unfortunately, when financial and other commandments are nothing more than suggestions, anything can get built. And the public can’t do much about it.

Photo: Photo by Night Owl City

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