California's Public Transportation Sinkhole

Thanks to labor unions and big-government activists, transportation has become another form of social engineering.


Americans suffer under the delusion that transportation systems are just that—systems for transporting people from one destination to another. What most of us fail to recognize is that the politicians, activists and planners who play the greatest role in creating those systems have far different goals than improving the way we move from Point A to Point B.

To today's transportation movers and shakers, such systems are giant jobs-creation programs designed to boost the economy and provide high wages to members of influential unions; and the key means by which to remake society in a way that is nicer to the environment and leads to a changed citizenry that is less likely to use automobiles to get around. Think of transportation these days less as civil engineering and more as social engineering.

Understanding those points is crucial to understanding the current debate in California over a proposed High Speed Rail system defined by inexplicable route selections, massive cost overruns, predicted travel times that will never be realized even under the most optimistic scenarios, and fantasy-land funding promises.

None of those realities stop the political engines promoting "high-speed" rail from chugging along. At a press conference last month, a coalition of construction unions and business leaders championed the project. "We need jobs and we need jobs now," said one union official speaking at the rally, according to a Palo Alto publication. But the government cannot create economic growth by shaking down taxpayers and running up debt, even if those dollars are used to benefit one particular interest group in one particular part of the economy.

At least we know where the unions are coming from. But consider the bigger vision pitched by President Obama: "What we're talking about is a vision for high-speed rail in America.  …  Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination."

Actually, it's hard to know what he is talking about. Riders still need to get from their home to the center of a city, and there's no way that any rail system is going to take most riders to within walking distance of their destination. Train rides are far slower than plane flights. I have pipedreams too, but at least I don't have the ability to fund them with your money.

Unfortunately, California's voters in 2008 approved Proposition 1A, which authorized nearly $10 billion in debt spending to begin this rail line that would ultimately link Anaheim to San Francisco. The rest of the money for the system (then predicted at around $40 billion) would come from federal funding and a variety of local and state sources. Since then, Congress has killed the Obama administration's rail plan. California's state government still struggles under a massive deficit. Local governments are struggling with a down economy and overspending on things such as pensions and high salaries for government workers, with some municipalities now considering bankruptcy. There is no money and taxpayers already are struggling here.

Even in spend-happy California, the rail proposal has become something of a joke—a project rarely discussed without the term "boondoggle" attached to it. So, recently the High Speed Rail Authority released a new business plan that purports to solve the problems that critics have raised. It claims to have slashed $30 billion from a price tag that had ballooned to nearly $100 billion.

And instead of just building the Train to Nowhere from two out-of-the-way cities in the state's Central Valley, it connects the line from Bakersfield to the San Fernando Valley. The initial plan now cuts out the LA to Anaheim route and instead will require Orange County suburban riders to take a commuter train to Los Angeles. The system will also share tracks with commuter trains from San Jose to San Francisco. So much for an Asian-style rail system that will get people from Southern California to San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes without changing trains!

Even one of the architects of the system has complained bitterly that the new proposal has become a "train robbery" that diverts rail funds to local commuter lines. Many critics argue that the new business plan almost certainly violates the clear dictates in Prop. 1A—i.e., that the train move people quickly between south and north without requiring transfer.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who refuses to address the bloated state government even as he spends more and demands higher taxes from taxpayers, argues that the state's draconian cap-and-trade system, which imposes fees on businesses that produce carbon dioxide, will fund the train line. That amounts to yet another massive tax on businesses to fund something far less than necessary. How many more companies will head for the exit door or expand their operations in states that encourage business creation rather than view private enterprise as a cash cow that can always be milked?

Boosters still argue that private investment will help fund the system even though it's unlikely that any private companies would invest in a boondoggle. The Chinese will be glad to lend California the money, but that's a different matter.

Here's how ridiculous the proposal is—the notoriously spendthrift state Legislature is in no rush to approve the new plan, according to news reports this week.

Meanwhile, many Californians wonder why the rail is needed when they can currently hop an inexpensive plane flight in LAX and be at SFO in about an hour and 10 minutes. Those who think that way are forgetting the rules detailed above. Transportation these days isn't about getting around, but about creating government-funded jobs and pursuing big-vision projects that have little correlation to how we actually get around. No wonder the state's system of roads and freeways—not to mention its budget—is such a mess

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.