When the father of the current governor of California was governor, he was a driving force behind the highway building boom that gilded the already Golden State. Aggressive road construction and free-flowing water were Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr.’s lasting legacies. By contrast, Governor Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, Jr. is looking at a legacy tarnished by a bullet train that will cost far more than projected, won’t thin out today’s jammed highways, and will never run on time.
Politicians like flashy new projects: a European-style bullet-rail line is more glamorous than maintaining battered transportation arteries and adding desperately needed highway capacity. But California’s 800-mile, high-speed rail plan is well on the way to becoming a legendary boondoggle. News that $35 million allocated for utilities costs had been transferred on an “emergency” basis to pay train contractors are one reason why Republican state assembly member Jim Patterson called for an emergency audit. “What are your plans to complete the project?” demanded Patterson last month of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. “Describe to us how you’re managing costs. Please explain to us why and how you are transferring hundreds of millions of dollars just to keep the construction going?”
Democrat Al Muratsuchi, chairman of the legislature’s Audit Committee, rejected the request on procedural grounds. His reasoning: because the legislature wasn’t in session, committee members and the public would be denied “the opportunity to have a say in the decision.” The rejection, combined with the train’s mounting troubles, makes it look like there is something to hide.
Muratsuchi has reportedly told Patterson that he can submit the request again in January, when the legislature is in session—in other words, when lawmakers will have an official opportunity to say no, or, if the request is granted, to spin whatever inconvenient news the audit turns up. Muratsuchi might think that Patterson is looking for a “gotcha” revelation to make headlines, but concern about the cost and progress of the rail line is well founded—from budget estimates and cost-containment policies to contingency planning if funding dries up. “We owe it to the people to demonstrate that the High-Speed Rail Authority isn’t going to skip town and leave us with a partially built track,” Patterson said. “Californians deserve to know what Plan B is—it’s time for a reality check.”
At about the same time that Patterson’s audit requested was denied, the High-Speed Rail Authority announced that its environmental reviews, which were supposed to be done by 2018, won’t be finished until 2020—just the latest delay in a project that has had too many to count. The Los Angeles Times reported in September that the 119-mile Central Valley segment alone is already $1.7 billion over budget and seven years behind schedule.
Policymakers sold the high-speed rail project to voters nearly a decade ago, in a ballot measure that promised a 220-mph super train that would blast passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in a tidy two hours and 40 minutes. Independent analysts say that the ride will likely take at least three hours and 50 minutes and as long as four hours and 40 minutes—or only an hour less than it currently takes to drive.
So it might not be very fast—but at least it will be cheap, right? Wrong again. Projected fares have risen along with the projected travel times. What was once estimated roughly as a $50 ticket between Los Angeles and San Francisco had inflated to $105 by 2009, according to the project’s business plan. The latest estimate: an $86 fare, which one can readily imagine going higher still by the time the train is operational.
Ridership estimates have steadily fallen. Voters were told that by 2030, the system would carry 65.5 million to 96.5 million riders a year—figures about three times higher than independent projections. At the lower numbers, not enough commuters will fill the seats to relieve the grinding congestion on the roads.
California has already spent more than $3 billion on a project with an estimated cost that has bounced around from the original $33 billion to $43 billion, then up to as much as $117 billion, before settling, at least for now, at about $68 billion. Some pressure is building to junk the project—to take a smaller loss now, that is, rather than a much larger one in the future. Letting the bullet train die would probably require a ballot initiative redirecting the project’s allocated but unspent funds to more useful projects—such as increased highway capacity. And that’s something that Californians could actually use.
Photo by California High-Speed Rail Authority via Getty Images