High-Speed Rail

Gov. Newsom Pulls the Plug on California's Costly Bullet Train Boondoggle

Celebrate, don't mourn, the end of what's always been a bad plan.


California High-Speed Rail construction
Gary Reyes/TNS/Newscom

California's wasteful, expensive, and likely doomed-to-fail statewide bullet train project is getting killed. Today, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom said he's abandoning the plan as "too costly."

Newsom made the announcement in his State of the State address this morning. As the Associated Press reports:

Newsom said Tuesday in his State of the State address it "would cost too much and take too long" to build the line long championed by his predecessor, Jerry Brown. Latest estimates pin the cost at $77 billion and completion in 2033.

Newsom says he wants to continue construction of the high-speed link from Merced to Bakersfield in California's Central Valley. He says building the line could bring economic transformation to the agricultural region.

And he says abandoning that portion of the project would require the state to return $3.5 billion in federal dollars.

Newsom also is replacing Brown's head of the board that oversee the project and is pledging to hold the project's contractors more accountable for cost overruns.

Newsom actually turned against the bullet train project years ago but then went quiet about it when he began his plans to run for governor. He declined to discuss what he saw as the train's future on the campaign trail, but after he was elected he suggested some sort of cutback was coming, possibly eliminating the bottom half of the project, making it a train from San Francisco to the Central Valley of California.

Now it looks like he's scaling even that back. Californians are just going to be left with a train in the middle of some of the more rural parts of the state because the Newsom administration doesn't want to have to repay the federal funding.

Whatever may come next, this is happy news for most California citizens. Voters approved a ballot initiative in 2008 that set aside a $10 billion bond to begin the project of building a high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco with the promise that more funding would come through from the feds or from private sources, that the train would not require subsidies to operate, and that it would help fight climate change.

But it didn't take long for all those claims to be shown as unlikely, especially the costs. President Barack Obama's administration did provide $3.5 billion in stimulus funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but the project otherwise saw little additional outside financial support. The train's cost ballooned from $64 to $77 billion (and it would likely end up well over $100 billion if actually completed). The construction on the first leg began in the middle of California, near Fresno, and it wouldn't even link Los Angeles to San Francisco until 2029.

As for the other alleged benefits of the high-speed rail, the Reason Foundation (the non-profit that publishes this website) has been warning all along that the train would lose millions of dollars a year, wouldn't be anywhere near as fast as promised, would cost too much to ride, and would not reach anywhere near the ridership estimates that the California High-Speed Rail Authority projected.

The decision to end the project after the current construction is finished is, of course, a big blow to former Gov. Jerry Brown. This train was his pet project and he undoubtedly saw it as his legacy. No matter how much evidence was presented that the whole deal was a big boondoggle that would leave taxpayers holding the bag, Brown didn't waver.

But the announcement is also a bit of a kick in the teeth for the proposed Green New Deal by progressive Democrats in Congress. The Green New Deal, pushed by lawmakers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), heavily leans on the idea that high-speed rail could be used to link cities and ultimately reduce the use of air travel. It was a wholly unrealistic plan for any number of logistical reasons, as Joe Setyon explained last week. Newsom killing off the project's expansion also implicates the massive costs of the lawmakers' proposals.

And Newsom is no fiscal conservative. In all likelihood, he wants to use the money he'll save from not building the train on other big progressive aims, like single-payer health care coverage or propping up the state's overextended pension system for public employees. As bad as they are, those aims are at least preferable to an absurdly overpriced makework project intended to line certain people's pockets at the expense of the taxpayers.

Here's ReasonTV on the problems and scandals of the project:

Update: State Sen. Scott Weiner seems to think the press is misquoting what Newsom said in the State of the State address:

I went back and listened to Newsom's speech, posted online. Weiner is not quite accurate here. Newsom says he wants to ultimately connect the part of the high-speed train that gets built to Los Angeles and San Francisco, but is very careful in making it clear that he's not talking about continuing the bullet train onward north and south. My perspective here is that he's trying to be gentle at letting folks down.