The editorial board at Pravda on the Potomac can't find any reasons to believe in the bullet train. Is that just more violent, tone-coarsening rhetoric from eliminationist ed board honcho Fred Hiatt? Not quite. The WaPo, like virtually everybody who has taken a good look at the CHSR's nearly total lack of funding, non-existent ridership figures, and devastating peer group review [downloadable pdf], finds the project can't be called unsustainable because it's barely even begin-able:
The Peer Review Group's report was only the latest in a series of skeptical blue-ribbon documents. But, undaunted, the California High-Speed Rail Authority announced last month that it would at last begin construction - on a stretch connecting not, say, Los Angeles and Anaheim but two obscure locations in the state's rural Central Valley. The 120-mile segment would cost $5.5 billion. Critics quickly dubbed it a "train to nowhere" - a bit unfair, since some of the towns along the way have expensively redeveloped downtowns that may now suffer from the frequent noise and vibration of trains roaring through them.
This would be a matter of purely West Coast interest but for the fact that the U.S. government is paying more than half the cost of the new track, including $600 million newly diverted from Midwestern states that rejected the funds. Indeed, the Federal Rail Administration required that the money be spent in the Central Valley. It was the part of the state most likely to be ready to use it by a September 2011 deadline, because local property owners in more populated areas are stirring opposition, which drags out the environmental review process.
Given that California's system has attracted zero private capital and has been unable to guarantee any source - governmental or private - for almost half the cost of completion, the obvious risk is that the federal taxpayer will be on the hook for billions of dollars worth of railroad track that may never serve its intended high-speed purpose. But the Obama administration sought the funds, as part of the 2009 stimulus package, and Congress approved them - and so they must be spent.
The Golden State is now on its second consecutive governor who is willing to scour the earth in search of funding for the bullet boondoggle, but Jerry Brown is in a particularly good position to shunt the CHSR onto a siding and forget about it. In keeping with his new era-of-limits funding philosophy, Brown wants to delay new bond issues (Californians incredibly voted for themselves a massive new pile of choo-choo-related debt just two years ago) and is willing to kibosh Democratic favorites like redevelopment bureaucracies and "enterprise zones." But the CHSR Authority escapes extinction in his austerity budget, receiving instead a cool $102.3 million in state funding (all of it from bond debt) and $89.6 million in federal funds. That’s small potatoes, but it does allow the rail project to survive another year (which is the only thing it has managed to do in its 15 years of existence). From the budget's High-Speed Rail Authority section:
The significant Non‑General Fund workload adjustments are as follows:
• Program Management Oversight — An increase of $1 million in 2011‑12 as a result of an increased need for oversight and review of the Program Management Team’s work products and schedules.
• Interagency Agreements — An increase of $1.136 million in 2011‑12 as a result of interagency agreements with the Department of Justice and the Department of General Services.
• Program Management Services — A decrease of $37 million in 2011‑12 as a result of the contract with the Program Management Team being fully funded.
While the Authority has been awarded several billion dollars in federal funds for construction, details of the grants have not been finalized and appropriation of these funds may not be needed until 2012‑13. Thus, only $89.7 million in federal funds for partial design and environmental work is reflected in the Budget, with the same amount in bond funds for the state match.
The spending in Brown's budget proposal seems too modest for any groundbreaking by September 2012. That's the deadline for the state to start building the train or lose $2.25 billion in federal funds. Will missing this deadline be a backdoor way for Brown to terminate the CHSR? It would be a smart move for a project that remains superficially popular but has no actual support when the rubber hits the road -- though in this case I guess it would be metal or mag-lev or quidditch brooms rather than rubber.
One small piece of this story is that the CHSRA has been in conflict over rights of way with Union Pacific's freight trains -- meaning a market-proven rail industry could be quashed in favor of one that even supporters acknowledge will never become self-supporting. In a tangentially related note, the Association of American Railroads reports a very substantial year-to-year increase in rail traffic in December. That's "good news" for the economy, if you're into that kind of thing. It would be great if they didn't screw up the green shoots by, say, spending billions of future taxpayer dollars on 19th-century technology that nobody will use.
Reason TV more reasons why federal support for high-speed rail is a train wreck in the making: