Is California High-Speed Rail Dead?

The CEO and board chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority have resigned in disgrace over erroneous cost projections. A peer-review commission created by the California legislature says the authority’s high-speed rail plan is “not financially feasible.” Surveys show a majority of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans in the state all oppose construction.

Yet the authority’s scheme to build a new rail line capable of moving trains from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes won’t die unless the state legislature kills it. Officially, the authority plans to begin construction by September 2012, despite the fact that it has less than 10 percent of the money it needs to complete the project.

The tide definitely turned against the plan when the authority published a new business plan admitting that estimated inflation-adjusted construction costs had more than doubled from $43 billion to $98.5 billion. Moreover, under the new plan the promised 220-mph trains would not roll until 2033, more than a decade later than voters were promised in 2008.

The authority’s credibility was further reduced when it admitted that the million jobs it promised were really job-years, and that no more than 60,000 jobs would be created at any given time (and even that was probably an exaggeration). These revelations cost the project the editorial support of a number of major papers that had previously endorsed the project.

The 2008 ballot measure that voters narrowly approved authorized the sale of $9 billion in bonds that would eventually have to be repaid by state taxpayers. But those bonds could only be sold if they were matched by funds from federal or other sources. The Obama administration has given the state about $3.5 billion (giving the authority a total of $7 billion) on the condition that construction begin by September 30 and that the first segment constructed be in the Central Valley. The latter condition was made just before the 2010 election in a blatant effort to assist the election campaign of Representative Jim Costa (D-CA) of Fresno (who subsequently won re-election by a mere 3,000 votes).

Journalists are now questioning every aspect of the project. The latest story is that “doubts [are being] cast on cost estimates” for the alternative to high-speed rail, which is better highways and airports. I pointed this out back in 2008 in a Cato report showing that the highway-airport alternative did far more to reduce congestion than the high-speed rail line, suggesting that a highway-airport alternative that accomplished the same congestion reduction as the rail line would have cost much less.

What raises doubts now is the way the cost of the alternative has crept up. When the authority was insisting that the rail line could be built for $43 billion, its highway-airport alternative was estimated to cost $100 billion. When the rail cost jumped to nearly $100 billion, the highway-airport cost mysteriously increased to $171 billion. “There is some dishonesty in the methodology,” says a University of California, Berkeley transportation engineer. “I don’t trust an estimate like this.”

California Republicans have introduced a bill in the state legislature to prevent any bond sales that would fund the initial construction out of Fresno. Some Democratic legislators question the project, but it retains the endorsement of Governor Jerry Brown, and since Democrats have majorities of both houses of the legislature, anything could happen.

If the legislature doesn’t kill the project, the authority will spend the money it has available to build track capable of moving trains at 220 mph from somewhere south of Fresno to somewhere north of Fresno (though probably not all the way from Bakersfield to Merced). A handful of daily Amtrak trains might use those tracks, probably at no more than 110 mph, to save their passengers a few minutes on their trips from Bakersfield to Sacramento. The authority will be betting that someone will come up with the other $92 billion, but at the present time neither the federal government nor the state government has the cash.

All this has made rail advocates increasingly desperate. While supporters hysterically talk about California’s population growing to 50 million people, the truth is that, by the time the state could ever finish a high-speed rail line, the technology will have been completely superseded by such things as driverless cars and improved air service. Although the failure of the California scheme will end Obama’s dream of a national high-speed rail system, California needs high-speed rail like it needs a $100 billion hole in its budget.