[guest post by JVW]
Well, it’s been almost a year (fifty weeks to be exact) since I last updated everyone on the epic failure that is California’s High-Speed Rail Authority’s project to build a rail line between San Diego and Sacramento — er, make that Anaheim to San Francisco — er, make that Bakersfield to Merced. And to save everyone the suspense, I am not going to be delivering positive news. Two weeks ago a contractor on the project wrote a blistering 36-page letter to the HSRA’s head of contracting, pointing out that HSRA still has yet to provide right-of-way documents on over 500 parcels of privately-held land in the Fresno area which are needed for the route, and the contractor, the Tutor Perini Corporation of Sylmar, cannot continue its work until they are provided. As a consequence it appears highly unlikely that HSRA will meet a key 2022 deadline necessary to unlock further federal funds. The contractor also pointed out that turnover in the HSRA and ongoing negotiations with utility companies and freight railroad carriers will inevitably slow down progress on the line.
This naturally was too much for Brian Kelly, the CEO and Head Cheerleader of HSRA, who sniffed that the folks at Tutor Perini were simply trying to blame others for their own delays. But the accusation that HSRA has failed to clear rights on the entire proposed train route didn’t just emerge in recent weeks; we were covering this ongoing failure fifteen months ago. Mr. Kelly (total compensation for 2019: $542,199.27) and members of his staff concocted a rather lame defense which they managed to get some small news outlets, desperate for content, to run:
The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s yearly economic impact analysis underscores the growing value of California’s investment in high-speed rail amid the economic uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since 2006, the Authority has created between 54,300 and 60,400 job years of employment throughout California and invested more than $7.2 billion in planning and construction of the nation’s first high-speed rail system. Approximately 97% of the expenditures are to contractors, consultants and small businesses in California.
“The economic impact of high-speed rail in the Central Valley cannot be overstated,” said Authority Chief Executive Officer Brian Kelly. “Our progress on the construction and planning of clean, fast, reliable electrified high-speed rail continues to provide work and opportunities, despite the pandemic-related challenges of the last 10 months.”
Contra Mr. Kelly, HSRA was not sold to us as a jobs programs for the manufacturing and construction industries (but, like all progressive initiatives, it was a given that the project would entail lots and lots of nicely-paid state bureaucratic positions), it was actually supposed to build a super-fast choo-choo train that would be accessible to about 90% of the population of the Golden State. Since that goal now appears more and more to be a pipe dream, the final few remaining advocates of the project have only the taxpayer-funded employment opportunities to hang their hats on. Of course that same financial sum pissed away by HSRA could have gone to a whole lot of other initiatives which might have even produced something tangible, or perhaps it could have even been left in the pocket of the taxpayers who would have surely put it to far more efficient use. The Los Angeles News Group editorial board gets this, once again calling for the project’s termination:
Now that the Legislature is back in session and the governor’s budget proposal has been unveiled, it’s a good time to ask why the state of California is still proceeding with the doomed boondoggle known as high-speed rail.
[. . .]
The bullet train project is providing generous salaries to bureaucrats, big contracts to consultants and construction companies, and jobs for some construction workers. The one thing it’s in no danger of providing is transportation.
Meanwhile, the money is running out. Federal grants are in jeopardy because of the project’s continuing delays. It’s possible that the incoming Biden administration will be more patient with California than the outgoing Trump administration has been. Trump terminated a $929-million grant and threatened to claw back funds already spent. The federal funds are the subject of a legal dispute.
[. . .]
Voters agreed to the project on the promise that it would be a high-speed train between Los Angeles and San Francisco, built without a tax increase and run without a public subsidy. What they got instead was a high-cost jobs program that specializes in self-congratulation.
It’s time to end this spectacle of wasteful government spending. Cancel the bullet train.
Alas, the LANG editorial board is probably correct that the Biden Administration will be much more forgiving. They could push back the 2022 deadline that looms over the project and they could even reinstate the $929 million grant that the Trump Administration cancelled. One reason the Democrat-dominated state legislature and privileged progressive governor haven’t yet slammed shut the lid on the coffin is undoubtedly because they are wondering if Uncle Sucker might throw them a gold-plated lifeline. There is no shortage of gullible Democrats in Washington who just love these sort of projects, including those in the White House. So, like so many grand initiatives in California, from building a centralized data system to the unproductive stem-cell boondoggle that is the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to the woeful results of taxpayer-sponsored public housing programs, the HSRA is likely to chug along — wait, that’s exactly the wrong metaphor to use — stand in place for several more years, barring a Congress that comes to its senses and puts an end to this ridiculous project. Given the dysfunction in Washington these days, I’m sure Mr. Kelly’s nice sinecure is secure for some time to come.