Silver Bullet Train! California's Low-Flying Rail Boondoggle Gets Off to High-Paying Start


Like wildfires and earthquakes, the California High-Speed Rail project is one of those chronic threats to life and property in the Golden State that seem to menace the common good even when they're not happening. Which, in the case of the bullet train, is always.

In case you came in late, the bullet train, which would connect San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego on a roughly Y-shaped corridor, has never had either a budget or any realistic source of funding. The project's most ardent supporters have never been able to make any argument more compelling than the knave's "We dare not do nothing." A classic of pro-CHSR literature is the 2007 L.A. Times editorial "Believe in the Bullet Train," which saw the light after an ed board meeting at which it was conceded that there was no way to pay for the train, nobody would ride on it, and it probably would not get built—which meant that the only option was to go ahead and start paying for it:

California could conceivably be stuck with a partly built train to nowhere for years or decades. And there are serious questions about whether a high-speed train is such a high priority at a time when the state is already groaning under a perilous debt load and still has many infrastructure needs unfunded.

Yet critics who reject the train as a boondoggle base their arguments on the past, not the future. It's true that long-distance rail systems in this country attract anemic ridership and usually require bottomless taxpayer subsidies. But the unattractive economics of train travel won't necessarily remain that way forever.

Since that time, voters in the bankrupt state approved a $9 billion bond initiative that would not pay for a fourth part of even the lowest-end estimate of the project's cost. Early this year the Obama Administration tossed $2.25 billion out of a passing limousine, and most recently an audit gave a rave review for the CHSR's "inadequate planning, weak oversight, and lax contract management" that make it highly likely the project will experience "delays or an incomplete system." I'm not sure what "delays" would be in a project that was approved in 1996 but has yet to drive its first spike—or whatever they drive to build railroads these days. (Control group: The Transcontinental Railroad took seven years from approval to completion.)

So with a pre-history already this grim and costly, they must be really be minding the pennies now, right?

As the horses used to say when rail was still a relevant technology, NE-E-E-EIGH!

New CHSR Authority CEO Roelof van Ark will be starting out with a hefty $375,000 salary, making him the third-highest-paid non-university official in California. The Contra-Costa Times reports Van Ark's pay is more than half again the salary of the governor, and notes that the only higher-paying gigs are the State Fund Chief and the president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (another cush gig created by the approval of a bond giveaway).

The paper quotes assorted officials calling the deal a bargain because Van Ark could be making even more in the private sector. (Strangely, that includes the reputedly parsimonious CHSRA board member Quentin Copp, presumably because there's something about a train that's magic.) And besides, other people who play with trains nobody rides get paid too much too, so it's only fair:

The authority added that the head of San Francisco Muni makes $328,000 while the Los Angeles transportation chief earns $310,000. BART's general manager makes $299,000, Santa Clara VTA's CEO makes $290,000 and Orange County's transportation head has a salary of $267,000.

Welkom, Roelof! Stop by anytime, but you'd better drive.