Just months before a federally mandated deadline to break ground on a route described in the popular press as the “train to nowhere,” the California High-Speed Rail Authority is in chaos. In January CEO Roelof van Ark stunned board members by announcing his resignation in the middle of a meeting. Thomas J. Umberg, the board’s chairman, also quit and was replaced by an appointee of Gov. Jerry Brown.
Recent reports from the Bureau of State Audits, the Legislative Analyst’s Office, and the rail authority’s own inspector general have panned the bullet train project, citing unrealistic cost estimates, a lack of oversight, and inadequate research on potential ridership. The projected cost of the project has skyrocketed, from about $40 billion to between $98 billion and $118 billion, since voters approved a bond issue for high-speed rail in 2008. All of the critical reports advised that the project not go forward until it is substantially revised.
Local governments and news outlets have begun turning against high-speed rail too. Embattled is the kindest word formerly enthusiastic newspapers now use to describe the project. A December Field Poll indicated 64 percent of Californians would vote against the rail bonds now, 11 percentage points more than voted for them in 2008.
Yet California’s high-speed rail dream is dying hard. In a January State of the State speech that invoked the Interstate Highway System as well as the Suez and Panama canals, Gov. Brown portrayed high-speed rail skeptics as naysayers who believe the Golden State is in decline. “I know this state and the spirit of the people who choose to live here,” Brown said. “California is still the Gold Mountain that Chinese immigrants in 1848 came across the Pacific to find…The critics were wrong then, and they’re wrong now.”