The infamous, $113-billion-and-counting California high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, which was supposed to be completed by 2020 for a cost of $33 billion yet has only begun tinkering on a 171-mile stretch in the Central Valley, is not really "an existing project," says former California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) Chair Quentin Kopp. "It is a loser."
Added ex-chair Michael Tennenbaum: "I don't know how they can build it now." And California State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D–Lakewood): "There is nothing but problems on the project."
All these quotes come from a much-discussed article in Sunday's New York Times detailing the grossly politicized decision making that has plagued the proposed bullet train ever since California voters foolishly approved an initial $9.95 billion bond measure to jumpstart it in November 2008.
"Only now," asserts author Ralph Vartabedian, "is it becoming apparent how costly the political choices have been. Collectively, they turned a project that might have been built more quickly and cheaply into a behemoth so expensive that, without a major new source of funding, there is little chance it can ever reach its original goal of connecting California's two biggest metropolitan areas in two hours and 40 minutes."
At the risk of nitpicking an otherwise useful autopsy, there never has been, at any stage of this living monument to political unseriousness and hubris, even a "little chance" that the S.F.-L.A. line would zip passengers between the cities in just 160 minutes, let alone deliver on the whole ragbag of laugh-out-loud promises that the state and federal political establishment delivered with a straight face.
"The Rail Authority claims it will hit average speeds that are not being achieved by any other high-speed rail system in the world," Reason Foundation Vice President of Policy Adrian Moore once observed. "A trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles would allegedly take 2 hours and 40 minutes, averaging 197 mph. France's TGV-Est train averages 174 mph, the TGV Paris-Avignon averages 159 mph, Japan's bullet train averages 159 mph, and Taiwan's high-speed rail averages 152 mph….Those are the fastest ones out there. And they can use light, fast trains, because they run on their own tracks. California will have to use heavier, slower trains because the plan is run on the same tracks as freight trains, and federal safety rules require heavier passenger trains in the event of a collision."
Those words, heavy on incontrovertible fact, were published in September 2008. Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website, has for decades operated a public policy shop whose core areas of expertise have always included transportation (including rail), as well as California writ large. In August 2008, the foundation put out a 196-page due diligence report eviscerating the shoddy and shockingly expensive ($58 million already by then) work of the CHSRA, and predicting many of the pitfalls that have been plunged into since.
"There are no genuine financial projections that indicate there will be sufficient funds to complete Phase I, much less Phase II or any other phases," the report concluded. "It is possible that the system will either be built only in part or not at all….[The] system as envisaged in state statute appears highly unlikely to be delivered under the present plan….There is little likelihood that the passenger or revenue projections will be met, that the aggressive travel times will be achieved, that the service levels promised will be achieved, that the capital and operating costs will be contained consistent with present estimates, that sufficient funding will be found, or that the system will be profitable. It is likely that these circumstances will represent an expensive and continuing drain on the state's tax resources."
Even the crass, project-delaying political horse-trading that the Times focuses on was itself predictable at the outset by those who actually studied how massive infrastructure projects get done in the United States.
"[The project] is already turning into a money-grab for local governments and transportation authorities," the foundation's Adam Summers wrote in July 2008. "The wildly exaggerated claims of high-speed rail proponents and the attempts by legislators from across the state to put their hands into the high-speed rail money pot should serve as warnings against providing a commercial service with political means. In the private sector, businesses must satisfy consumer demands and put their own investments at risk in order to survive. Politicians, by contrast, do not have to live by economic realities. They can support any idea that sounds good at the time and keep dipping into the taxpayer well to pay for it, regardless of whether or not it makes sense."
Yes, the Reason Foundation is a libertarian think tank, interested in limiting the size of government and using market means to policy ends. But the foundation's transportation work in particular, spearheaded by the legendary Bob Poole, has long been respected across the political spectrum for its seriousness and attention to detail. And, in the case of the bullet train fiasco, that work was not an outlier.
"The Authority's ridership projections are considerably higher than independent forecasts developed for comparable California systems in studies by the Federal Railroad Administration, the University of California Transportation Center at Berkeley and in the recent Due Diligence Report," the foundation's Joseph Vranich testified to the California Senate Transportation and Housing Committee in October 2008. "The current proposal is untenable. The train will be slower than they say it will, will carry fewer people than they claim it will, and will cost much more than they admit it will."
Vranich was actually a bullet train enthusiast, pronouncing it "the first time I am unable to endorse a high-speed rail plan" (emphasis his). He painted a picture of a planning authority that hadn't even done the most rudimentary of homework:
I'd like to see high-speed rail built, but not this boondoggle.
High-speed rail holds great promise in certain sections of the country. But the work of the Authority is so deficient that if the current plan is implemented it has the potential of setting back the cause of high-speed rail throughout the United States. The Authority has not learned the lessons: What caused Texas high-speed rail to fail? What caused it to fail in Florida? What caused the prior project to fail between Los Angeles and San Diego?
A common element in the failures were high ridership estimates, low cost estimates, disregard for local environmental impacts and the planners losing credibility. The California Authority is repeating all of the mistakes as if they have never read a single page of history.
There is a point to rehashing these old arguments beyond saying we told you so. The fact is, these reality-based objections were widely known at the time. It's just that the people who otherwise fashion themselves as serious thinkers about public policy made the conscious choice to jettison rationality in favor of pie-in-the-sky dreaming.
Back in 2008, my former colleagues at the Los Angeles Times editorial board produced one of the most succinct examples of magical policy thinking you'll ever see:
The projections by the measure's opponents, led by the libertarian Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, are much less sanguine and more persuasive [than those by supporters]. If voters approve Proposition 1a, it seems close to a lead-pipe cinch that the California High-Speed Rail Authority will ask for many billions more in the coming decades, and the Legislature will have to scrape up many millions of dollars in operating subsidies.
And yet, we still think voters should give in to the measure's gleaming promise, because it's in their long-term interest.
Three years later, after the predicted pratfalls, the paper editorialized that, "Yes, the price tag has tripled and its completion date is 13 years later. But it's still a gamble worth taking."
The New York Times, whose sober reporting this week launched the latest public discussion of this colossal government failure, was right there editorializing in favor of it in 2014. "Despite modest investments, American lawmakers have not given high-speed rail the priority it deserves," the paper complained, before getting into some undergraduate-level policy sophistry:
California's plan to link Los Angeles to San Francisco by high-speed rail is expected to cost $68 billion. Critics argue that such services cannot survive without public subsidies and that the United States has few of the dense urban areas that have made such train services successful in places like France and Japan. But these arguments fail to acknowledge that most forms of public transportation are subsidized somehow by the government; the federal government puts up most of the money to build the interstate highway system. Skeptics also greatly underestimate the country's long-term transportation needs. The Census Bureau estimates that the American population will cross 400 million in 2051, and the country is becoming more urban, not less. California's population is predicted to top 50 million in 2049. That growth will put an incredible strain on the nation's highways and air-traffic system.
Note the tricks: Critics waved off, without hyperlink or citation, for not making a comparative-subsidy analysis that the Times itself fails to meaningfully enumerate. Zero cost-benefit comparisons of different transportation systems. Might as well just grunt "HAVE PROBLEM! THIS SOLUTION!"
We will keep repeating this expensive, life-disrupting folly until we meaningfully address the mindset that enables it. Former Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson identified this mental trap way back in 2010:
President Obama calls high-speed rail essential "infrastructure" when it's actually old-fashioned "pork barrel." The interesting question is why it retains its intellectual respectability. The answer, it seems, is willful ignorance. People prefer fashionable make-believe to distasteful realities. They imagine public benefits that don't exist and ignore costs that do.
We told you so. You chose not to listen. This one's on you.