Patterico's Pontifications


California High-Speed Rail: 2022 Follies

Filed under: General — JVW @ 4:58 pm

[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 twelve 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.



Delusional Senator Dreams of High-Speed Rail Where It Is Least Suitable

Filed under: General — JVW @ 5:03 pm

[guest post by JVW]

My contempt for people who sell fanciful public work pipe dreams knows no regional boundaries. Today, we saw the witless United States Senator from Connecticut, Christopher Murphy, indulge in the ever-popular progressive “[Europe/Asia/Canada] has [insert massive public spending initiative here], so why can’t we?” line of reasoning. This time, he channelled Jerry Brown’s obsession with the lickety-split choo-choo train:

Why not a bullet train, Senator? Well, let’s go over the logistics. Sen. Murphy doesn’t tell us what he thinks would be a proper amount of time for passage from Beantown to the Beltway, so let’s go ahead and grant that he probably doesn’t expect it to be the Beijing-Shanghai standard of a mean velocity of nearly 200 mph along the route. Let’s instead assume that he thinks the current travel time of roughly seven hours (ranging from 6:46 on the morning Acela up to 9:30 on the overnight Regional) from South Station to Union Station ought to be whittled down to a more reasonable four hours, meaning that the train should maintain an average speed of 110 miles per hour. One should note that Sen. Murphy’s estimation of 440 miles as the distance between the two cities is based upon the shortest possible drive which takes one through Central Massachusetts then down through Central Connecticut, but the reality of the current Amtrak route, which goes down through Providence then along the coast of the Long Island Sound, is that it is closer to 460 miles. So really a train along that route would need to average 115 mph.

Of course the train has to stop to pick-up and drop-off passengers along the way, and thus has to decelerate into train stations before arriving to a full stop and then start again from that full stop and accelerate back up to top speed on the way out. Furthermore, some of the time will obviously have to be spent sitting stationary at the — uh, well — station as passengers de-board and board the train. Currently the Acela takes the following route: Boston to New Haven to New York to Philadelphia to Wilmington to Washington. That is four intermediary stops, so estimating that deceleration into each station, exchanging passengers, then accelerating back out of each station would cost five minutes each (probably at a minimum) for a grand total of 20 minutes, we’re now talking about covering that distance in-between stations at a slightly faster clip to make up for that lost time, bringing us up to 125 mph.

Let’s put that into perspective. The high-speed train from Boston to DC would now need to travel at 125 miles per hour (over 200 kilometers per hour), through cities populated with Sen. Murphy’s constituents such as New London, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook, Westbrook, East River, Guilford, Milford, Stratford, Bridgeport, Fairfield, Norwalk, Darien, Cos Cob, Riverside, Stamford, and Greenwich. How many Connecticut moms do you think would be psyched by the prospect of a high-speed train hurtling through their cities past their homes, schools, playgrounds, workplaces, and churches? It’s true that high-speed train derailments are rare, but they aren’t entirely unheard of, and all it takes is for one to happen in an urban or suburban location and suddenly those trains will thereafter be required to crawl through those locations like elderly turtles wearing brand-new cowboy boots. And I only covered communities in Connecticut. I highly doubt that suburbanites and city dwellers are going to want trains passing through at 125 mph in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, or the District of Columbia either.

So could we build the high-speed rail line in a different route, perhaps the one through Central Massachusetts and Central Connecticut which would be save some time and affect fewer communities? Why sure we can. After all, even if we tried to use the coastal route, we would still have to lay down separate high-speed rail track, and we would have the huge conundrum (frankly an impossibility) of laying it in such a way that regular freight and commuter rail lines did not cross over it thus causing delays from time to time. Maybe we build the line from Boston to Hartford to New York to Philadelphia to Washington DC (ok, ok, President Biden: we’ll add in a fucking Wilmington stop just for you) and try our hardest to minimize passage through other urban/suburban areas. But of course this is the Northeast we’re talking about, so it’s not as if there are miles and miles of wide-open spaces we can work with. This alternate route would still probably see the train passing through small towns throughout Southern Massachusetts and Northern Connecticut, then after it left Hartford there’s no real way I can see to avoid running though twee Western Connecticut communities. And once you get anywhere near New York City you can absolutely forget finding open uninhabited spaces, with things not improving much on the route from New York to Philadelphia/Wilmington. From there you would have to route the train through Northeast Maryland to avoid having to slow down through Baltimore, and the high-speed rail line would have to go through the Chesapeake Bay on its way to Washington. Civil engineers, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Let’s also not overlook the fact that by deliberately avoiding passing through large metropolitan centers we are limiting our potential ridership. It seems unlikely to me that a rider in Providence heading to New York would take a 50 minute commuter rail ride up to Boston to catch the high-speed train, nor would they bother to ride to Hartford or New Haven and change trains just to go high-speed on those last 115 miles to Gotham. So you would likely be left with a ridership that is overwhelming within 20 miles of Boston, Hartford/New Haven (depending upon what the final route is), New York, and Washington. Does America really need to subsidize another money-losing venture just to make Chris Murphy and Joe Biden feel good around their Chinese counterparts?

It fits nicely within the noble tradition of the American can-do spirit to imagine running high-speed rail throughout our great country, but the sad reality is that the intersection of rail lines which might see profitable passenger traffic and rail lines which don’t traverse through densely-populated parts of the country is very small indeed. The lessons we have so bitterly learned throughout the whole California High Speed Rail Authority fiasco ought to be contemplated by the bullet train aficionados in other parts of the country, since it seems clear that what has vexed California HSR would come into play just as readily with a Northeastern version of that ugly boondoggle. (I mean, if we can’t even purchase land rights for rail track between Bakersfield and Merced, how are we going to do so between New Haven and New York?) But we’re in the era of stupid people and stupid capital, so it won’t at all surprise me if part of the Joe Biden legacy is a money pit similar to what Senator Murphy is teasing.



More Aggravating News from the California High-Speed Rail Authority

Filed under: General — JVW @ 7:02 pm

[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.



Gavin Newsom Makes It Official: No to Statewide High-Speed Rail

Filed under: General — JVW @ 3:50 pm

[guest post by JVW]

In his State of the State address earlier today, California Governor Gavin Newsom sounded the death knell for the woefully planned and horribly administered high-speed rail system that had been favored by his two immediate predecessors.

“Let’s be real,” Newsom said in his first State of the State address. “The current project, as planned [from Anaheim to San Francisco], would cost too much and respectfully take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.”

The idea championed by Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, is years behind schedule. The latest estimate for completion is 2033.

Newsom, though, said he wants to finish construction that’s already under way on a segment of the high-speed train from Bakersfield to Merced, through California’s Central Valley, arguing it will revitalize the economically depressed region.

He’s also replacing Brown’s head of the state board that oversees the project and pledged more accountability for contractors that run over on costs.

The Bakersfield to Merced line will be of almost no practical use, unless you want easy travel to see the UC Merced Bobcats play the CSU Bakersfield Roadrunners in men’s basketball. But perhaps now Gov. Newsom and his administration can prevail upon the zillionaires of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area to pony up and bring the line into San Jose. I hope the good people of the city of Anaheim don’t have buyer’s remorse over shelling out $185 million to reconfigure the tracks and build a beautiful new terminal only to now find out that they will just have the same old Amtrak and Metrolink trains chugging through, with daily ridership only about one-quarter of what had been expected.

Gov. Newsom made other news during his address today. In a further break from his predecessor, he announced that he does not support the “Twin Tunnels” idea for delivering water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the southern part of the state, opting instead for a single tunnel which would be more cost-effective but also less reliable than the two-tunnel system that the Brown Administration had reluctantly supported. He also announced that he would be replacing Gov. Brown’s appointments for both the High Speed Rail Authority and the State Water Resources Control Board, indicating a desire for a clean break from the previous Sacramento regime. (By the way, Brown is notoriously thin-skinned about having his policies countermanded, so expect to hear some sniping from him and his allies in coming days.)

I’ll give credit where credit is due. Gavin Newsom had the guts to pull the plug on a ridiculous vanity project beloved by environmentalists, statists, unions, and everyone who generally benefits from big government. There is certainly a lot to dislike about his administration — his address earlier today also called for new taxes and a host of other stupid spending initiatives alongside a paean to the stringent and unforgiving diktats of social justice — but on high speed rail the new governor has made the right call.



Confirmed: California High-Speed Rail Will Be Delayed and Overbudget

Filed under: General — JVW @ 5:06 pm

[guest post by JVW]

UPDATE: I added a rail map from the HSRA. Should have thought to have done that earlier.

In a move that surprised absolutely no one, an audit of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the group tasked with building the voter-approved taxpayer-funded “bullet train” from San Diego to San Francisco via Los Angeles, Bakersfield, and Fresno has determined that the project will cost significantly more than initially believed and will be delayed at least thirteen years from the original target completion date promised to voters when the project was approved.

We Californians in our infinitesimal wisdom approved the high-speed train project in 2008 through Proposition 1A, a ballot initiative approved in the same rancid election that brought the nation Barack Obama, Al Franken, Alan Grayson, and Jared Polis. Prop 1A called for California to sell bonds to raise about $10 billion to initiate the project, with the rest of the $45 billion total estimated cost covered by other state funding sources, local funds in each city through which the rail would pass, private investment, and, of course, Uncle Sucker in Washington. Proponents of the plan included all of the chamber of commerce types, the union bosses, and urbanists who fetishize public transport. Governor Schwarzenegger (who was working feverishly to get back in the good graces of his lefty Hollywood friends) endorsed the plan, as did pretty much all of the state’s legislative Democrats. Lavish promises were made: Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and forty minutes, Downtown San Diego to Downtown Los Angeles in 80 minutes, fares less-expensive than corresponding flight tickets, ridership that would be at least 65 million rides per year and perhaps as much as 95 million rides, and — best of all! — the project once complete would be self-sustaining, i.e. the annual passenger revenue would equal the operational costs. This was such an obvious load of horse manure that only Californians could have fallen for it, and indeed we did. The bill to place Proposition 1A on the ballot passed the Assembly by a 58-15 margin and sailed through the Senate on a 27-10 vote with a handful of Republicans in each legislative body joining in support of the project. In the November election, Prop 1A was approved by a much more narrow 52.6% to 47.4% margin, suggesting that California voters are a hell of a lot smarter than their leaders, if not quite smart enough to derail the bullet train.

And now, ten years in, the shillelagh of buyer’s remorse has smashed into the kneecap of our dreams. The bi-annual status report mandated by the legislation (the one useful thing Republicans demanded in return for their support) now acknowledges that the Anaheim to San Francisco portion of the route, originally scheduled to open in 2020 (yeah, two years from now) will now be delayed until 2029. In a cruel irony, that is one year after Los Angeles is scheduled to host the 2028 Summer Olympics, meaning the High Speed Rail Authority now plans to miss its golden opportunity to reach a huge international Disneyland-Dystopia potential ridership (Europeans and Asians who love bullet train travel!) in a tourism-heavy summer. Instead, we’re hoping to have San Jose to Bakersfield ready to go in 2024 and then if everything goes strictly to plan maybe the San Francisco to San Jose segment ready by 2029.

Map from California High-Speed Rail Authority

Map from California High-Speed Rail Authority

Naturally, the cost of building the Anaheim-San Fran Line has now ballooned to $77.3 billion, and that of course does not include the costs for extensions to San Diego and Sacramento. Moreover, the HSRA admits that figure is an estimate and that the project could cost anywhere from a low-end of $63.2 billion (best-case scenario which includes steady progress and no unforeseen setbacks) to a high-end of $98.1 billion (worst-case scenario which reflects the way these things are likely to go). In the financing section of the HSRA Report (pretty interesting reading/scanning if you can plow through about 100 pages) is an explicit warning about the project’s funding:

To date, the Authority has secured significant funds from both state and federal sources. These funds are being used to deliver the Central Valley Segment and complete environmental planning and other early work for the entire Phase 1 [Anaheim-San Fran] System, consistent with our federal grant agreements. However, as we describe in this section, the challenges of funding a transportation system of this magnitude are significant and actions still need to be taken to secure a long-term funding and nancing strategy that can help us deliver the full Silicon Valley to Central Valley Line.

The Authority is currently operating on a pay-as-you-go funding approach which means that contracts are let as funding is received. However, the continuation of this approach indefinitely will not support our delivery schedule. This is because the large contracts needed for the Silicon Valley to Central Valley Line — such as track and systems, rolling stock and tunnel construction — are greater than the funds that the Authority anticipates having at the time those contracts need to be executed to meet the 2029 completion schedule. To proceed with these contracts the Authority needs to be able to rely on a steady stream of future funds that provide certainty to long term contracting partners.

And there you have it, taxpayers: the HSRA has money to build the Bakersfield to Madera section (estimated now at $10.6 billion, up from the original $6 billion) but pretty much nothing else, not even the money to complete the Madera to Merced add-on which requires building a 13-mile tunnel at Pacheco Pass in the Diablo Mountain Range. As mentioned earlier, the state sold $10 billion in bonds to kick-start the project after Prop 1A passed. During the first term of the Obama Administration, California was given federal funding of about $6.25 billion, but nothing further has come from Uncle Sucker and it doesn’t appear that the Trump Administration or a GOP-led Congressional chamber will reopen those spigots. Other funding has come from Governor Jerry Brown pushing to have one-quarter of the cap-and-trade funds allocated to the project. Of course, Gov. Moonbeam and his allies estimated this to amount to about $600 million per year expecting emissions trading credits to bring in $2.4 billion annually, but expectations have naturally fallen short of the mark leaving a hole in the state funding. Some local governments have chipped in in a parochial way, with cities such as Anaheim and San Mateo spending money to build new transit centers and help clear the way for new high-speed rail track by removing no-longer used track, but those efforts even lumped together have been fairly paltry. And private enterprise has simply not as yet answered the call (the HSRA report delicately suggests that private companies are waiting for the completion days to come closer). I’m sure that rail stations will make a nice bit of coin renting space to McDonalds and Apple, but given that the funding mix was supposed to be 33% from local & state government, 33% from the federal government, and 33% from private enterprise, I’m having a hard time seeing those rents and whatever Google and Apple kick in so their employees can move out of their shared barracks in Los Gatos and move out to the Central Valley (now only an hour away by bullet train!) make up for the massive shortfall that this HSRA report acknowledges.

As with so many other cases in which the central planners throw their lot in with the smart set and then use the political fixers to implement their dreams, the reality of high-speed rail in California is almost certain to fall woefully short of the extravagant promises made on its behalf. Even the zealous boosters at the California High Speed Rail Blog have fallen silent, last blogging over ten months ago. The idea in and of itself isn’t a horrible one, but in an era where big government fails at the most basic of tasks it is delusional to expect it to competently manage a project as massive and intricate as this one.

One and one-third centuries ago, Henry Morrison Flagler began the process of consolidating and building a trans-Florida railroad that would eventually run from Jacksonville to Key West. He completed the project in just about a quarter-century, including time lost when hurricanes destroyed key bridges forcing rebuilds, and he more or less exhausted his fortune in the process. Though the railroad no longer exists and the bridges from Key Largo to Key West were largely destroyed by 200 mile-per-hour winds from a Labor Day weekend hurricane in 1935, the bridge spans that Flagler built were repurposed in building Highway 1 along the abandoned train route, immortalizing Flagler’s heroic work. (Excellent book about Flagler and the railroad here.) With Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (estimated net worth of $71 billion), Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google (each checking it at just under $50 billion, Elon Musk ($20 billion), and others leading the way, why not a privately-built high-speed rail for the Golden State?

Cross-posted over at the Jury Talks Back.



WELCOME TO TRUMPRAIL! Trump Signals Interest in High-Speed Rail

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 9:30 am

If you liked TrumpCare, you’re gonna love TrumpRail:

President Donald Trump pushed his White House team on Wednesday to craft a plan for $1 trillion in infrastructure spending that would pressure states to streamline local permitting, favor renovation of existing roads and highways over new construction and prioritize projects that can quickly begin construction.

. . . .

Mr. Trump said he would was inclined to give states 90 days to start projects, and asked Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, to provide a recommendation. He expressed interest in building new high-speed railroads, inquired about the possibility of auctioning the broadcast spectrum to wireless carriers, and asked for more details about the Hyperloop, a project envisioned by Tesla founder Elon Musk that would rapidly transport passengers in pods through low-pressure tubes.

“America has always been a nation of great promise, because we dream big,” Mr. Trump said. “We’re going to really dream big now.”

Our national debt today is just shy of $20 trillion. Debt per citizen is $61,496. Debt per taxpayer is $166,570. The national debt doubled under George W. Bush, and doubled again under Barack Obama. Is it going to double again under President Dream Big?

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. But somehow I expect that Trumpers will start telling us that This Is Different. Yesterday I saw someone who claims to be on the right literally justify TrumpCare by saying health care is a “national security issue.” Today, “conservatives” like that will justify reaching deep into our pockets at a time of record-breaking historical debt to build . . . high-speed rail.

As for that, Trump should look at the disastrous high-speed rail effort in California before he pursues this idea further. The first segment of California’s implausible scheme, the “train to nowhere” in the Central Valley, is several years behind schedule. As of June 2016, the original $33 billion cost estimate had “more than doubled to $68 billion,” and according to this recent analysis, “likely budget overruns projected out over the remainder of the route, from dense urban areas at the north and south termini to the soggy soils of the San Joaquin River region to the rugged mountains of Southern California, will likely be in the range of another $30 billion, pushing the project’s total cost past $100 billion.”

Yeah, let’s replicate this throughout the country. Great idea, Trump.

Dream big, America!

[Cross-posted at RedState and The Jury Talks Back.]


Reuters Headline: U.S. cancels $929 million in California high speed rail funds after appeal rejected

Filed under: Government,Politics — DRJ @ 9:00 am

[Headline from DRJ]

U.S. cancels $929 million in California high speed rail funds after appeal rejected:

The U.S. railway regulator, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), said on Thursday it had canceled the funding awarded in a 2010 agreement after it said the state had “repeatedly failed to comply” and “failed to make reasonable progress on the project.”

In a statement, the FRA said it was still considering “all options” on seeking the return of $2.5 billion in federal funds the state has already received.

Read more @ Reuters.



Jerry Brown Signs $68 Billion High Speed Rail Measure

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 8:43 pm

Luckily we have $68 billion lying around:

California moved full steam ahead on Wednesday with a $68 billion high speed rail project, a move that comes as the state slashes spending to close a nearly $16 billion budget deficit and as a string of its cities mull bankruptcy.

At a ceremony in Los Angeles, Governor Jerry Brown signed an initial funding bill for the train project, clearing the way for construction of a 130-mile section of track through the state’s agricultural heartland.

At least we’ll see the benefits soon:

Calling naysayers “NIMBYs,” “fearful men,” and “declinists,” the governor celebrated a project that he first signed a bill to study 30 years ago.

“It’s taken that long to get this going,” he said, flanked by dignitaries and construction workers at the site of San Francisco’s future Transbay Terminal. “You may not be around when it’s finished.”

. . . .

“You have to take the bull by the horns and start spending and investing in things that make sense,” Brown said Wednesday.

Sometimes you just have to mortgage our children’s future even more.

For the children.


The Logical Result of Our Fiscal Irresponsibility

Filed under: General — JVW @ 12:06 pm

[guest post by JVW]

The Los Angeles Times (known ’round these parts as the Dog Trainer) has a story of tremendous local interest in today’s paper regarding Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory laid off 100 contractors last week and will scale back part of the first-ever effort to bring pieces of Mars to Earth, after a cost-cutting order from NASA that lawmakers called “short-sighted and misguided.”

In an email to staff on Thursday, JPL director Laurie Leshin said that NASA is bracing for a federal budget that could cap spending on the Mars Sample Return mission at $300 million this fiscal year — just 36% of the previous year’s $822-million budget and less than one-third of the $949 million the Biden administration requested for the program.

Yeah, you know, that sort of thing is bound to happen when the federal government gets up to $34 trillion in debt. Here’s a fun fact: back in 2019 — before the pandemic and the subsequent orgy of spending that followed — the Congressional Budget Office expected that we wouldn’t reach the $34 trillion mark until 2029. But that can-do attitude in Washington means that we’ve said past their estimate five years early. (This is a good reason why CBO estimates should always be taken with a grain of salt.) More from the Dog Trainer:

Last week’s layoffs of contract employees along with a hiring freeze are part of a lab-wide effort to reduce spending, Leshin wrote. In addition, NASA has ordered JPL to cease operations at the end of this month on a key project within the mission to bring a piece of Mars back to Earth, a joint project with the European Space Agency and one of the biggest and most complex missions undertaken at the lab.

Gosh, you mean we’re just now finding out that there are consequences for a failure to rein in spending? I was told that Modern Monetary Theory and minting trillion-dollar gold coins would keep the gravy train rolling. Do you think our legislators might be chagrined at how badly they have let us all down, or are they deflecting blame back on to the victims? Yeah, that’s an easy one:

The cuts come while Congress is still debating how it’s going to parcel out the 2024 fiscal year budget.

Lawmakers have criticized the agency’s decision to scale back on staff and science on the Mars effort before final numbers are in.

“NASA’s unilateral and unprecedented decision to cut funding for the Mars Sample Return mission, before Congress has finished its appropriations process, is having devastating real world consequences,” Rep. Adam Schiff said on Friday. “This critical mission was identified as NASA’s highest scientific priority by the decadal survey, and to back away now will relinquish important American leadership in space science.”

There you have it, according to Rep. Adam Schiff. We have no choice but to continue to fully fund every single initiative that any government agency and their assorted lobbyists deems as “critical” or is otherwise necessary for American exceptionalism. You may wonder if JPL’s assessments of the feasibility and the time-table for a successful mission been historically accurate. In a word, no:

An independent review of the project that NASA commissioned last year found that the mission was “not arranged to be led effectively,” and that there was a “near zero probability” that it would make its 2028 launch date. Even meeting a postponed launch date of 2030 would require more than $1 billion a year for at least three years starting in 2025.

The mission’s final price tag could be nearly $10 billion, the review concluded — more than double the $4.4 billion estimated in 2020.

If you have even the vaguest familiarity with how government works, it’s obvious what has happened. Four years ago the project leaders cobbled together some numbers which assumed absolute best-case scenarios with the project going smoothly and no delays or mishaps along the way. Does this remind you of any ridiculous public projects that have tied up the Golden State for the last fifteen years? And like the stupid bullet train, we now find that the Mars project is far more complicated than first sketched out, and it will cost nearly 2.5 times as much as the original budget estimates.

I’m going to help bail out this project. I’ll contact Rep. Schiff and suggest to him that that the latest $6 billion which Washington inexplicably gave to Sacramento for high-speed rail be instead diverted to JPL. Frankly, neither one of these projects should get a dime of taxpayer money until our political leaders drop the posturing and start addressing our problem with runaway spending, but I have friends who work at JPL so I’ll put my principles aside in this case (see how that sort of thinking also exacerbates the debt situation?).

Nowhere in this Dog Trainer article is mentioned the budgetary mess that is forcing us to pinch pennies at JPL. Last fiscal year we spent on the order of $400 billion just to service the interest on the debt. That is four hundred times the amount that would fully-fund JPL for this year. It’s over five times what we have spent helping Ukraine repel the Russian invasion. It’s almost half as much as our entire defense budget. It’s roughly three-tenths of what we pay out in Social Security obligations each year. Yet there doesn’t seem to be the least bit of understanding, either from the Dog Trainer or frankly from a huge chunk of the voting public, as to how our rising debt impacts our other spending priorities. As cantankerous as I am, I’m really not too jazzed about living in the Golden Age of Pessimism.

It’s a long way to November, and unfortunately it’s going to be a long, hard slog after that, no matter which nimrod we elect.



The Biden Administration Ruins My New Year’s Weekend

Filed under: General — JVW @ 12:12 pm

[guest post by JVW]

It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t exit 2023 bitching about one of my hobby-horses. From NRO:

Under the cover of night (i.e., the dark corridors of federal bureaucracies), the Biden administration handed California $6 billion for two high-speed-rail projects. The Golden State’s high-speed-rail hubris has been a big, black, cash sinkhole since the Obama administration.

Earlier this month, the office of California governor Gavin Newsom gleefully announced that California High-Speed Rail Authority “will receive nearly $3.1 billion for construction in the Central Valley, supporting the overall end goal of connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles,” while the rail project, Brightline, “will receive $3 billion to connect Los Angeles to Las Vegas with 80% of the project’s construction in California benefiting the state’s economy and labor market.”

Governor Newsom declared, “California is delivering on the first 220-mph, electric high-speed rail project in the nation. This show of support from the Biden-Harris Administration is a vote of confidence in today’s vision and comes at a critical turning point, providing the project new momentum.” The $3.1 billion grant from President Biden’s historic Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is the single largest grant received by California’s High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA).

It’s such beautiful weaselly language that the governor’s office uses: “supporting the overall end goal of connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles.” I’ve said this countless times: there will never in my lifetime, or likely anybody else’s lifetime, be a high-speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles. As we have discussed year after year, the California High-Speed Rail Authority has a close to zero chance of ever acquiring the land rights to build that line, let alone figuring out a compromise with environmentalists to tunnel through the Diablo Mountain Range or have a bullet train hurtling up the densely-packed San Francisco Peninsula.

So we are where we have always been with the initial project: a desperate scramble to finish up the Bakersfield to Merced line and then call it a day, lest the Republicans come back into power in Washington DC and start demanding accountability for (and a potential repayment of) the over $10 billion of federal funds which have already been wasted by this ridiculous white elephant. And now of course they are dangling out that perennially-promised Los Angeles to Las Vegas line which will almost certainly end up being scaled back to a Victorville to Primm line, and will end up costing an order of magnitude more than the $3 billion gifted by the Biden Administration by the time all of the pigs leave the trough. If this line were financially feasible, the multi-billion dollar gaming industry would almost certainly be ponying up money to ensure that it is built. The fact that they haven’t done so after all of these years speaks volumes as to what the sharpies think about its potential.

The HSRA is set to release their annual report sometime towards the end of next month, so I’ll provide a fuller update on this epic cathedral of failure.

Happy New Year.


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