Mass Transit

Bullet Train Myopia Driving Local Transit Boondoggles

California lawmakers are trying to dig a hole too big to fail.


Over the past six years, California legislators and the governor have increased overall general-fund spending by $36 billion but couldn't find extra money to spend on road, freeway and other meat-and-potatoes transportation projects. But that doesn't mean they weren't spending money like drunken brakemen on myriad rail-related projects.

Sacramento's transportation focus has been transit, which Democratic leaders believe will reduce the state's global-warming footprint and combat congestion by encouraging Californians to ditch their cars in favor of a rail pass. State leaders complain about a lack of money—hence, the newly signed law to boost gas taxes and vehicle-license fees—but the problem always comes down to priorities.

Bottom line: California officials are far more interested in social engineering than transportation engineering. They prefer to prod and cajole us into changing the way we get around than in building the infrastructure to help us actually get around. Even the new tax-hike package includes $750 million extra a year in transit projects and for biking and hiking projects, according to a Senate Republican analysis.

The most high-profile example of this approach is, of course, the governor's pet high-speed rail project, a $64-billion-plus project that promises to connect the Bay Area to Southern California (via a variety of Central Valley cities) in about three hours. The rail authority last week sold $1.25 billion in bonds as it seeks to get something on the ground so there's no turning back.

As former Assembly speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2013, referring to the cost-overrun-laden Transbay Terminal in San Francisco: "If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there's no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in."

At least he was honest. A lot of sensible people have wondered why the Brown administration is spending so much time and scarce transportation dollars on a bullet train that won't be particularly fast and faces enormous geographical hurdles (getting over the Tehachapi Mountains, for starters). Well, Jerry Brown is following the Willie Brown model: he's trying to dig a hole that's as deep and wide as possible.

In fact, state and local governments are digging several holes—fiscal sink holes, actually, that are closely linked to the bullet-train project. For instance, Orange County taxpayers, thanks to the Measure M tax, spent $120 million to build the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center. Its acronym, ARTIC, is a good one given that the bullet train should reach that destination sometime after hell freezes over.

This largely empty 67,000 square-foot boondoggle was meant as a central hub for the county's bus, Metrolink, and other transit services—but was justified because of the role it could play as the end point for the bullet train. The project's boosters predicted 10,000 riders daily, but it struggles to serve 2,800 a day. As I wrote for the Orange County Register recently, it was supposed to pay for itself, but it's only expected to earn $1.4 million of its $3.9 million annual budget. The city's tourism district has decided to stop paying the deficit, which will now be borne by Anaheim taxpayers.

It's an even more precarious situation in San Francisco. Willie Brown might be okay with the $2.4 billion spent on that Transbay Transit Center, a similar hub in the city by the Bay, but that city's taxpayers should be less thrilled by its $20 million in annual operating subsidies a year.

"The three-block-long behemoth was envisioned as the Grand Central Station of the West, a dynamic hub for buses and high-speed rail that would draw more than 100,000 visitors a day," wrote San Francisco Chronicle columnists Matier & Ross. "Come opening day, however, there will be no high-speed rail. Instead, for many years, the five-level showcase… will be little more than the world's most expensive bus station—serving mainly the 14,000 Transbay bus commuters".

And other costs are coming for that project. "For high-speed rail to reach the new terminal," says California Policy Center's Marc Joffe, "Caltrain would have to be extended 1.3 miles from its current San Francisco terminus at 4th and Townsend. It would cost a lot of money—perhaps a billion dollars—to build this new 1.3-mile subway."

San Francisco is also spending nearly $1.6 billion, in coordination with Caltrain and the California High Speed Rail Authority, to connect the Caltrain commuter rail depot to the North Beach neighborhood. There are legitimate local reasons to extend this light-rail system perhaps, but the prospect of a pie-in-the-sky bullet train is driving some of these decisions. These are costly projects—and the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Likewise, Los Angeles Metro officials just approved a massive overhaul of Union Station to enable it to "handle an expected doubling in the number of daily passengers by 2040," according to Curbed Los Angeles. "Another big part of the project is readying Union Station for high-speed rail service" even though "questions continue to swirl around the fate of that much-delayed project as political opposition to it grows in Congress … ."

Yeah, but you've got to start digging holes, especially holes that get transit advocates clapping.

Los Angeles magazine wrote last week that "Against all odds, the California Bullet Train Barrels Forward." Well, it is true the state's political leadership won't take no for an answer, and the courts continue to let the current project barrel ahead even though many of its main promises are at odds with the supposedly ironclad promises made to voters when they approved the initial $9.95 billion bond funding in 2008's Proposition 1A.

Last week, a superior court judge said bond money can be spent despite an ongoing legal challenge. But overcoming political and legal hurdles isn't the same things as surmounting myriad fiscal and engineering feats, which lie at the heart of the bullet-train's problems.

One of the fathers of this rail project, former judge Quentin Kopp, has argued that the high-speed rail (HSR) project "is no longer a genuine HSR system, as covenanted to California voters and the Legislature. Instead, it has been distorted in a way directly contrary to the high-speed rail plan the authority attempted to implement while I was chairman." He takes issue with the current "blended" system, which shares commuter-line tracks near Los Angeles and San Francisco. He also complained about the way bullet-train funds are used for that central subway project in San Francisco.

Certainly, sending supposed bullet trains along commuter tracks will vastly reduce the speed of the trains—and the whole purpose of a project designed to provide speedy north-to-south transportation. But Kopp, who made his arguments as a declaration in one of the lawsuits opposing the current rail project, is thinking rationally, whereas the Brown administration and the rail authority are too busy embracing Willie Brown's cynical approach.

I argued for the California Policy Center that the new $5.2 billion a year transportation tax really is a pension tax given that state officials have refused to rein in pension costs, which will soon require the state to dump $11 billion a year into the pension systems. Had state officials fixed the pension mess, they would have had plenty of cash to fund extra transportation projects.

But the new tax increases also can be thought of as a high-speed rail tax. If state officials weren't spending so much money on these wasteful rail-related transit projects, they'd have extra money to fix roads, bridges and freeways—and to provide realistic transit projects rather than overbuilt boondoggles designed with a future fantasy train in mind.

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  1. It’s fun sometimes, in a banging-your-head-against-a-wall way, to realzie how well our economy manages in spite of all this corruption, and then to wonder how much better off we’d be without government mucking it up. Local, state, and federal governments spend $8T a year, and while getting rid of government wouldn’t eliminate all of that, it would surely eliminate most of it, and the rest would be spent much more wisely and efficiently. Gives me the shivers sometimes to daydream about how much faster the future would get here and how much more fun and interesting it would be.

    1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

      This is what I do.,.,.,.,.

    2. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

      This is what I do..,.,.,.,.,.

    3. With no taxes you would have twice as much money, and so would everyone else. Things would cost half as much, since producers wouldn’t be paying taxes. And getting rid of unneeded regulations would make things twice as efficient. So you would be 8 times wealthier than you are now.

  2. California is busy building Train stations before they build the track. That’s painfully illogical thinking. Why is it that Lefties keep insisting that they are smarter and more logical than the average person, and yet collectively they make obviously poor decisions.

    1. Because the train is not the goal. The goal is State power, State control, State spending, State jobs.

      I’d say they are doing pretty damned well.

      1. And paying off friends.

    2. Too much Sim City when they were majoring in Urban Planning.

  3. Please, please–can we stop with the trains?

    We did that. It was fun while we were stupid and limited.

    Now we have transportation of a type that needs no tracks, no roads, just a relatively flat place to take off and land. Let’s work with THAT type of transportation.

    Trains, no matter how fast, are a huge leap backwards.

    1. Trains are great for long distance freight. Not even platooned autonomous trucks can match their efficiency.

      As long as the tracks exist, statists will think they can find a better use for them.

      1. And since high speed passenger trains and freight trains can’t use the same tracks due to the speed difference then the freight will be forced off the tracks and onto the roads which will make both passenger and freight movement less efficent

        1. Less inequality is good.

  4. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Leftist Progressive Train Fetishists who are so enamored of Japan’s rail system freaking MOVED TO JAPAN, instead of trying to duplicate it here?

    There they could ride Bullet Trains to their hearts content – at least until they were condescending twits to somebody in the Yakuza, whereupon they would cease to annoy anybody.

    1. I wish that too. I was stationed in Japan for two years. I would sometime go to a larger city on the weekend. I took the 4 hour train ride. If it wasn’t for the 40-50 dollars in tolls each way I would have only taken the two hour drive.

  5. The problem that I believe the left has is their protectionism of unions which represent the industries of the past and can never believe in or accept the industries of the future. It is evident in the big city resistance to companies like Uber or AirBnB. The paradigm shift in transportation will not be bullet trains but drones.

  6. RE: Bullet Train Myopia Driving Local Transit Boondoggles
    California lawmakers are trying to dig a hole too big to fail.

    This is a wonderful idea.
    This way, the taxpayers of California will give their excess capital, who they stole from the people, to their enlightened ruling elitist turds in Sacramento. Now the politically connected to Governor Airhead will reap the rewards the so justly deserve off the California’s treasury and build trains that go from nowhere to nowhere at an inflated prices. This way the People’s Republic of California will go further into debt, show the world once again that is run by a bunch of brain dead bureaucrats, corrupt politicians, is always open to crony capitalism blatant stupid public policy.
    Is it any wonder all the sane are leaving California?

    1. You want a future of technology and combatting global warming, follow China, as California is doing.

      1. Yup centralizing power and limiting freedom of movement. See that way once you have to rely on government to get anywhere you are less likely to question the Central Commitee. Sounds like Communist central planning 101.

        1. “Sounds like Communist central planning 101.”

          High speed rail got its start in Japan, a vassal of the American empire. I don’t blame the communists, but the Asians. Normal people get around by car, Mexicans by bus and Asians prefer high speed rail. It’s all a piece with Asia’s plans.

          1. You also have to understand Europe like Asia has a population density that is a little more conducive to rail. However their rail systems are not all their cracked up to be. When I was in Japan the weekend trip I would make was a 4 hour train ride but a 2 hour drive. It was only cause of the 40-50 bucks in tolls each way was why I took the train. The High Speed lines are not really high speed outside a few express trains.

  7. The communist government in Vietnam did the same thing. Now the are sections of train track that will never get finished next to a crappy 2 lane road. Central planning always fails for some reason.

  8. “Sacramento’s transportation focus has been transit, which Democratic leaders believe will enable them to destroy suburbs and force citizens back into heavy urban centers that their political machines can control. State leaders complain about the fact that voters can leave the cities and live in suburbs away from their political power brokers. This sort of freedom scares liberals. So they passed the newly signed law to boost gas taxes and vehicle-license fees thereby making driving cost prohibitive for all but the elite. The problem has always been for Democrats and Progressives when people can move to the Surburb and Drive where they want.”


  9. Does nobody else find it amusing that the most anti-gun state in the Union calls it the Bullet Train?

    1. Yeah, they should give you a trigger warning when you buy your tickets.

      Oh wait, “trigger” warning…. aaaaarrrrgggghhhh….

  10. Californians (and the citizens of other nations who live and vote there) deserve all the high taxes and poor services they get from the mutts the continue to elect. Sooner or later, and likely not until after a default/repudiation of public debt, some common sense will return to the Golden State. Good luck to them until then. Maybe they can send Willie Brown to Puerto Rico to take notes….

    1. I would agree if I didn’t know that some shmuck working in North Carolina or Texas are going to pay to bail those idiots out. You know even if the Grand Coward Party holds the Senate and House they will cave when they need to have the pension system bailed out. California will keep spending like idiots and the rest of the nation will foot the bill.

    2. California voters need to realize, at some point, that bond investors are not paying for the bonds the voters keep approving.

  11. I can’t believe the world hasn’t turned back to dirigibles for public transportation. Modern dirigibles are far more efficient, FAR less costly and much more versatile than rail systems.

    1. Only if you want to go east with the winds.
      Coming home is a bit less fuel efficient.
      Explosions weren’t the only reason dirigibles went away. (no subsidies in the dark ages)

  12. Has there ever been a “public mass transit” project in the USA that did not get tax money for either construction, operation, or both?

    1. Mississippi river boats.

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