High-Speed Rail

Can California Conservatives Kill the High-Speed Rail Boondoggle?

A ballot initiative planned for 2020 would let voters kill the overbudgeted, underfunded, behind-schedule monstrosity.


Train construction
John Gastaldo/ZUMA Press/Newscom

The same folks trying to scale back California's massive gas taxes are now taking aim at the state's budget-busting, behind-schedule high-speed rail project.

Carl DeMaio, a former member of the San Diego City Council (and a former contractor for the Reason Foundation, which publishes this website), announced this week that he's introducing a brand new ballot initiative that would force the governor to stop all activity on the proposed bullet train (currently under construction in the Fresno area) and spend any remaining money on other transportation projects.

When we last took note of the bullet train, everything was spiraling out of control. Costs had ballooned up to at least $77 billion (three times what citizens were told when they approved a bond for the project a decade ago) and delays have pushed the opening all the way back to 2033. It's a disaster that Gov. Jerry Brown insists on defending as some sort of legacy.

DeMaio's new ballot initiative would kill the train, but it doesn't stop there. His proposal is essentially a follow-up to Proposition 6, up for vote this fall. Proposition 6 would roll back gas taxes and vehicle fees passed last year and would require a public vote to implement any future gas tax or vehicle fee increases.

The ad blitzes for and against Proposition 6 have already begun. If you're a Californian, you may already be seeing "No on 6" ads popping up in your social media feeds. (This Angeleno has been seeing them all week on Facebook.) The opposition ads warn that the passage of Proposition 6 threatens funding for roads and bridges. "Crumbling roads and bridges" is the phrase officials defending the gas taxes have been hitting over and over.

The reality, though, is that millions and millions of dollars of revenue collected by the gas taxes are being directed away from those "crumbling roads and bridges." As Christian Britschgi noted back in April, the revenue from the gas tax increase from last year is being used to fund 28 transit projects that had nothing to do with repairing roads and bridges. This revenue is actually being used for pet rail projects, including a revamp of the rail network here in Los Angeles to prepare for the 2028 Olympics. So in reality, the gas tax was making drivers across the state subsidize pet train and mass transit projects.

DeMaio's new initiative addresses that problem with a "lockbox" proposal that forbids revenue from gas taxes to be used for any projects other than those involving roads.

But California has lots of taxes, and his plan doesn't forbid using all of it for other projects. The new initiative would allow car sales taxes to be devoted to all types of transportation projects, including mass transit, bike lanes, and other types of programs.

Read DeMaio's new ballot initiative here. He submitted the initiative to the attorney general's office Tuesday to request a title and summary to begin the process of collecting signatures, with a goal of getting it on the 2020 ballot.

Bonus link: The Reason Foundation analyzed all 11 ballot propositions that Californians will be considering on Election Day in November. Read what we have to say about them here.