[guest post by JVW]
It’s been over a year since I have bitched and moaned about the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA, or HSR for short) so I think it’s high-time I entertain readers with an update on the single most ridiculous public works program in our nation’s history (say what you will about Boston’s Big Dig, but that project eventually was completed). Heck, just to show that I’m not trying to put my finger on the scale, I’ll use a report from the New York Times this past Sunday as the basis of this post. Here goes:
On an average day, 1,000 workers head to dozens of construction sites spread over 119 miles across California’s vast Central Valley.
Their task is monumental: Build the bridges and crossings designed to carry bullet trains that will form the backbone of a $105 billion, 500-mile, high-speed rail system whose scale has drawn comparisons to the construction of the interstate highway system.
Ooooh, a new estimate on what the project will cost to complete, and for the first time the HSR acknowledges that it will indeed be in the nine figures, which all of us pretty much knew from the outset. But let us continue:
Of course, 14 years after voters approved a nearly $10 billion bond to start building the rail system that would whisk riders from Los Angeles to San Francisco at speeds of more than 200 miles per hour, many California residents have long since lost track of what is being built where, and when or if it will ever be completed.
But if, as President Biden said in his State of the Union address, the nation is now entering an “infrastructure decade,” there is no more dramatic testing ground — or more cautionary spectacle — than California’s high-speed rail plan.
Left unsaid here is that nobody still believes the train will reach 200 mph for longer than the briefest of moments, if even then. But I love how the Times writer is framing this as a high-risk/high-reward sort of project from which the Biden Administration might at last rescue and rehabilitate the reputation of expensive government projects funded mostly by Washington DC deficit spending. Still, we soldier on:
In 2008, when the bond measure passed, the project symbolized the state’s ambition to build and think big. But in the years since then, the project has become something else: an alarming vision of a nation that seems incapable of completing the transformative projects necessary to confront 21st century challenges. The rail’s planned route and scope have changed as a result of ballooning costs, political squabbles and legal challenges.
[. . .]
Never have the cases for and against the effort been so divergent.
At the moment where I want to rejoin with a very snide “I’ll say!” I have to stop and remember that not everyone maniacally follows this sordid tale as obsessively as I do, and many oblivious and twee denizens of our nation’s historic East Coast cities might still have the notion that high-speed rail in California is both possible and economical. So I’ll keep my mouth shut and continue:
Proponents say the project has always been much more than a train. If completed, they say, the system would be an economic super charger connecting two of the nation’s biggest population centers and a desperately needed alternative to choked freeways and jammed airports as climate change becomes an ever urgent challenge.
[. . .]
Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor at Oxford University and the IT University of Copenhagen who has studied high-speed rail projects around the world, said that such projects nearly always cost much more and take much longer to build than initially projected.
The difference between high-speed rail projects that limp along for decades and those that start running trains isn’t money, he said. It’s political energy.
“The money will be found if the political will is there,” he said.
It sure would have been nice for Prof. Flyvbjerg to have blown the whistle on the underestimated costs and project completion time before we voted to undertake this project (Oh who am I kidding: all of the HSR opponents stated clearly that this boondoggle would be far more expensive, take far longer to build, and have far less ridership than the projections of proponents, yet our state’s idiot voters still approved this nonsense). But now it would be nice to inquire of the good professor what his research has shown about actual revenues from ridership in comparison with initial estimates. Over at Reason, Marc Joffe writes that the state is still using pre-COVID pandemic ridership projections, and does not account for slowing population growth in the state or for the rise of remote work and reluctance to ride on germ-ridden public transportation. Ominously, Amtrak’s Bakersfield to Bay Area line saw a 59% drop in ridership from 2019 to 2021. And given that the ridership estimates by HSR advocates were always fanciful to begin with, the idea that California high-speed rail will run without any sort of state subsidies — which was a condition of the bond issue approved by voters — is pretty much dead at the starting line. Even the NYT admits that the project faces massive challenges:
Some state lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, now say the effort has become flawed and unwieldy, perhaps beyond saving. Critics say that rail officials are seeking a blank check from state coffers, and that their timeline for completion is stretching unaccountably into the future.
“The project is by all objective measures in distress,” said Anthony Rendon, California Assembly Speaker, a Democrat. “Connecting the two largest urban areas in the state is the best thing we can do from an environmental standpoint and an economic development standpoint. To link two cities in the Central Valley would doom the project.”
Speaker Rendon, being a good progressive Democrat, is not against rail projects per se. In fact, his argument is that if you want to encourage Californians to travel by rail, the best way to begin is by expanding regional lines and encouraging ridership in the “bookends” of Phase 1 of the HSR line, San Francisco/San Jose and Los Angeles/Anaheim, and then after you have exposed Golden Staters to the magic of choo-choo travel comes the time to start connecting those urban centers with the faster, sleeker, newer lines. It’s a sensible argument to be sure, but I do fear that it continues to overestimate the willingness of a people long accustomed to automobile and air travel to transition to trains. In response, Governor Hair-Gel replies that you need to build proof of concept that HSR works, and the Central Valley segment is the best way to accomplish that.
But all of that is inside baseball when faced with the fact that there is scant will in either Democrat-dominated Sacramento or Democrat-led Washington to continue throwing away taxpayer money on this vast failure:
A report by the California legislative analyst’s office notes that while the state’s legislature could decide to extend funding for the project — including a portion of cap-and-trade revenues through 2030 — it’s unclear where the money will come from to build beyond the Central Valley segment.
Experts say that the fragmented nature of transportation planning in the country has made the federal government hesitant to bet big on new projects rather than on fixing existing systems. That’s layered over a national political environment in which the appearance of California boosterism can be a liability, even for Democrats like the president.
California’s high-speed rail will “get some federal funding now that there’s a Democratic administration in place and the infrastructure bill is done,” said Jeff Davis, a senior fellow with the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan research organization. “But the federal government is not in the business of creating massive infrastructure programs that disproportionately benefit one state.”
Mr. Davis explains that of the $36 billion in the silly bipartisan “Infrastructure Bill” which was earmarked for rail projects it is likely that over half will go to the Northeast, given that the bulk of rail travel takes place in that region. Some money will go to other regions which have existing rail routes, and some has been promised to states which currently have little passenger travel by train but have promised to create new lines. This would leave California, by Mr. Davis’s estimate, with at most maybe $5 billion in federal funding, which of course comes nowhere near funding the balance of the project.
No report on California high-speed rail would be complete without an eye-rollingly stupid take from Brian Kelly, the CHSRA’s chief executive and head cheerleader (this is where I report that Mr. Kelly’s annual salary of $360,029 in 2019 was bumped up to $388,749 in 2020 — I’m glad somebody did well during the pandemic, Brian! — though his overall compensation fell a bit from $542,199 to $537,909 because for some reason he was down $34,500 in the “other pay” category) who makes an appearance to provide one of his typically fatuous bromides for why HSR is imperative for the Golden State, yet one that was apparently so awful that the reporter didn’t bother to quote from it, choosing to summarize it instead:
For Brian P. Kelly, who took over as chief executive of the rail authority in early 2018, the only way to get the project done is to trudge forward, whatever the political weather.
He rattled off his tasks ahead as if he were describing a day of errands: Get trains running on the 170-mile Central Valley section. (Mr. Kelly said he expects that to happen by the end of the decade.) Continue with preparations for the extensions and finish improvements on either end of the line. Then find the money to build the rest.
“Find the money.” Attitudes like this are what every sane person hates about useless bureaucrats who draw a cool half-mil in compensation.
The report closes awkwardly with Ashley Swearengin, the Republican former mayor of Fresno who now serves as a lobbyist for regional interests, exhorting the state to finish building the initial Bakersfield-Madera line. I don’t begrudge her that: at this point after spending 13 years and (now nearing $20 billion) I’m sure she just wants to be done with the mess. For the ending summation of this article, just like the HSR project itself, there is no bright outlook, no sunny projections for success, and (pardon the cliché) no light at the end of the tunnel. We’re stuck with this goddam mess, and all we can do now is work to ensure that once the initial part is completed the whole CHSRA is put out of commission and we never again speak of this sadly avoidable monstrosity.