High Speed Rail

More Money, More Problems—Bridge Problems—with California's Embattled Bullet Train

The state quietly ordered a bridge under construction to be rebuilt due to "signs of distress."


Train construction
Gary Reyes/TNS/Newscom

First California took billions of taxpayer dollars to build an unneeded, overpriced (but underbudgeted) bullet train through the middle of the state. Now, even though an operating train line doesn't even yet exist, part of it has to be rebuilt.

For the past several years, the state has been building its first segment of a high-speed rail line near Fresno. Late last year, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) ordered one of its contractors to stop construction of a bridge over a street and start it all over.

This apparently was all done fairly quietly. Los Angeles Times reporter Ralph Vartabedian (who has been doing excellent work documenting exactly how this gaping money pit has been growing larger and larger) just found out and wrote about the situation late last week:

In a statement, the authority said the Avenue 8 bridge design did not meet its "level of quality for a work product" and showed "signs of distress." Some time after last September, the authority had [contractor] Tutor Perini start on an entirely different design, agency documents show. The decision has not been previously reported.

The rail authority said it is discussing who will bear the cost of the rework.

I'm guessing…Californians? The head of Tutor Perini insists that the CHSRA previously approved the bridge structure, then changed its mind. Apparently the first bridge was made with retaining walls filled with carefully packed earth and concrete support pillars. The new version they want would use poured concrete instead of soil, which is less likely to fail.

It's also, obviously, going to be more expensive. Reason has been reporting the financial ups and downs of this train boondoggle for years. Californians may recall that the bullet train's boosters sold it to taxpayers by getting the purported price down to $68 billion. Critics have been warning all along that the agency had dramatically underestimated the cost of building the train; this incident is a good illustration of how that happened.

The train agency has now finally admitted that the project is going to cost billions more than estimated, possibly as much as $98 billion. Oh, and it's going to take longer to construct as well. Set your calendar for another decade, Californians! Seriously, it's not expected to be in service until 2029. By then we'll all have self-driving vehicles (I exaggerate—but maybe not as much as I think).

This giant boondoggle is a reminder that inflexible and expensive rail systems are not the right way to approach transit needs in a dynamic society like ours.

Unfortunately, one attempt to try to rein in the rail was just defeated at the polls. Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers have been using funds appropriated from an environmental cap-and-trade program to keep the construction going. (Voters authorized only $9 billion for the train in a ballot initiative passed in 2008.) An initiative on last week's primary ballot would have changed the rules to require two-thirds majority approval in the legislature to distribute money from the cap-and-trade program. The ballot initiative failed miserably, meaning lawmakers still need only a basic majority vote to allocate the money.

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  1. Of course a 19th century transportation paradigm is the solution to 21st century problems. Technology is cyclical, you know.

    1. I remember seeing some article about “Trains making a big comeback in America” but when I went to find it to link to it, I just got Runaway Train by Soul Asylum so now I’m just crying.

      1. Could have been worse.

        1. Now I’m crying for different reasons.

      2. That video is a bummer.

  2. I would really like to laugh about this but I can’t. I know that good old Uncle Sugar Daddy Sam will no doubt bail this nightmare out.

    1. Probably not with Trump in the WH.

  3. Unfortunately, one attempt to try to rein in the rail was just defeated at the polls.

    I appreciate the “try to” instead of the “try and”.

    1. It’s nice to see that someone can be grammatically correct.

  4. Driving through Fresno I used to wonder about that really long overpass they were apparently building. Wondered what it was connecting. Then I realized it was not going to connect anything and it was just a make work project. A railroad to nowhere. Sigh.

    1. This is how you create wealth, by doing work damn it. What about this is so hard to understand?

  5. when you dig a hole to deep to climb out of just keep digging and maybe no one will notice

    1. eventually you have to come out the other side…

    2. dig up stupid

  6. Rail boondoggles are nothing new. I was reading about a local borough council that invested $20,000 (in 1850) in a rail line that was proposed for their town. Voters were enthusiastic. Rail construction was so over budget that the line went bankrupt and the borough lost $16,000. One thing was different however: those formerly enthusiastic voters took the opportunity at the next election to throw out all those who voted to “invest” taxpayer money.

    1. Yeah California politicos on the other hand will say “darn it we didn’t spend enough. Lets come up with a new tax spend more money and dammit we will get it this time” and the voters will say “tax us more boss”

      1. …and vote in Brown as “governor for life”.

  7. Seriously, it’s not expected to be in service until 2029. By then we’ll all have self-driving vehicles (I exaggerate?but maybe not as much as I think).

    By then I plan to have no vehicle at all, but rather a subscription to a self-driving car share. Either that or I’ll be part of the resistance against the machine army. Depends how the AI thing shakes out.

    1. While I’m not really looking forward to self driving cars, I think it’s utterly ridiculous for anyone to be making long term investments in significant fixed transportation infrastructure that doesn’t take that into account.

      If self-driving cars reach their full potential, you can eliminate a huge percentage of the roads as well as significantly reduce the amount of paved surface needed for a road. I’d guess we could eliminate 90% of the pavement if the vehicles are near perfect in their driving.

  8. Along with the “settled science” that “humans must attempt to manage the climate of the planet by assuming global average temperature projections 1000 years into the future are accurate and relevant, assuming predicted consequences of projections are accurate, and then using this assumed knowledge to manage the evolution of future technology by making laws that favor government-approved industries and punish others so that we don’t drown under rising sea kevel,” the Rail Cult is a modern secular religious dogma.

    1. More like a near Fifty Shades of grey fetish. But it is deeper then just the rail it is the whole progressive fetish for the pedestrian lifestyle and city life. it is how we get the “cars is the devil mass transit will save us all”. They will tell you how morally and intellectually superior they are to you or I cause they shop in small shops for tonight’s dinner for instance. They will lift their nose at us suburban dwellers.

  9. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just hire people to dig and then others to fill holes?

    About as productive.

    1. More so — it churns the soil, aerates it, probably does some actual good.

  10. What galls me the most is that the constitutional initiative at the very beginning promised the trains would run SF to LA in under three hours. When the route changed and the speeds got slower, some damn judge said no big deal, that the written guarantees didn’t count.

    I wasn’t surprised at the judge’s deference to his political master, just pissed off that it was so blatant and yet was not appealed (ir didn’t win the appeal, I forget which now).

    1. My guess it will be worse – much worse than 3 hours. Why? Because once the train starts running in the Central Valley (if it ever does), there will be political pressure to have it stop at an increasing number of towns.

      I can go from San Jose to LAX for less than $100 on Southwest, often around $50 in less than 1 hour. Why would I want to take a train with tickets that are undoubtedly going to cost much more and will take more time to get to LA?

      Then there is the massive and expensive infrastructure issues at both ends to move people to and from terminals.

      Then there are the TSA-ish issues. High speed train would make a nice target and would require serious fencing along its route to prevent rocket attacks. Passengers will have all of the same TSA hassles we have today at airlines. Someone has to pay for this too and it’s not reflected in the contruction estimates.

      1. The plan is to have both express and local trains. One will go from SF to LA at full speed while the other will stop at the various stations along the way. They currently predict tickets for the SF to LA route to cost about $80. That’s assuming that they find the funding somewhere to build it. The recent business plan released 6/1 admits that they only have enough money to build a piece from Madera to Bakersfield and another piece from Gilroy to SF, but no funds to actually connect those two pieces via the Pacheco Pass.

  11. Florida Gov. Scott knew exactly what kind of mess he was avoiding when he turned down this federal money for a similar project to build a train between Tampa and Orlando. It might be feasible one day but not now. This fiasco in California has proven him right!

    1. In spite of Gov Scott’s veto on money for the I-4 High Speed Rail, construction proceeds apace to make all of the I-4 corridor compatible with HSR, with wide medians and and with bridges and curves that can accomodate them, all of the way to Daytona Beach.

      So today you can drive I-4 and look at a broad pasture between you and oncoming traffic. In the future, perhaps, you will be able to drive it and see empty train cars speed by.

      1. Yup corporate welfare for Disney. LOL That was one of the ways they sold it saying they would benefit was increased tourism dollars. Cause as we know that is how people will want to get to the parks.

  12. California is the leading example of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Once, back in the long-ago day, Californians approved a lottery bill promoted on the premise that the money derived from the lottery would go to education and that none of the education funds would be cut. That lasted until the next round of budget negotiations, in which the education budget was cut dollar-for-dollar to match new money received from the Lottery. Turned out Peter was broke too.

    California will never have a bullet train, does not need a bullet train, and should not be spending so much as a dime on a bullet train. All it represents is Jerry Brown’s monument to himself and his grandiose environmental schemes. If you know anything about California geography, then you know that all these billions are being spent on a bullet train to nowhere. To actually get somewhere will cost billions more.

  13. Gee, what a surprise. Choo-choo train is over budget.

  14. “signs of distress”

    If only they were building dam.

  15. Who else remembers when CA’s ruling class told the peasants they could shove their Prop 187 up their asses?

    Well, this is the CA you get for it. Detroit on the Pacific.

    How’s that water rationing working for ya?

    Maybe they’ll start shipping water on the bullet train.

  16. And I thought Amtrak was an epic boondoggle.

  17. Go head, put down the Cal Choo Choo. When it’s finished hundreds of Europeans will come over each year and ride and marvel how anything like this could have been built.

  18. Boondoggles are Jerry Brown’s pet projects.

  19. The game is called sunk costs. It works like this.
    Someone is government decides that a new transcontinental high speed rail system is needed and asks for bids. 3 contractors bid. 1.2 trillion, 1.4 trillion and 200 billion.
    The administrator calls the third contractor in and tells him, “You’re crazy! No one can build that for 200 billion.”
    The contractor gives a cheshire cat smile and replies “You’re correct but Congress will never allocate even 1.2 billion for the project. To get the project started, you submit the 200 billion estimate. Congress will buy that.”

    “But what happens in a few years when the money is gone?”
    “We go back to Congress and tell them that they have sunk 200 billion into the project. Costs are running higher than expected but another 200 billion will get the job done. A few years later, Congress has sunk 400 billion into the project and is more easily convinced that another 200 billion will fix the issue. In this way, we can get the actual 2 trillion dollars for this project.”
    This game has worked for decades. No one is ever fired, demoted, transferred or even hears a cross word for failing to deliver the project on time and on budget.

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