California high-speed rail set to break ground this week

Ready or not, Californians – and America – here it comes.

After a two-year delay, during which the cost nearly doubled, California's high-speed rail system will break ground this week.  The project – said to cost $68 billion – will link Los Angeles to San Francisco by 2028.

There's only one teensy, tiny problem: they have no idea how they are going to fund it.

LA Times:

The groundbreaking will be led by Gov. Jerry Brown at the future site of the downtown station in Fresno. Brown has made the project one of his highest priorities, investing considerable political capital in what he sees as an important part of his leadership legacy.

The concept for a California bullet train originated in Brown's first terms as governor. Ever since, proponents have dreamed of a modern rail system that could better unite the state's disparate regions. But moving that vision to reality has proved to be one of the most difficult and contentious political issues in recent state history.

"They have overcome quite a lot," said Martin Wachs, a UCLA professor emeritus of urban planning. "They certainly have enormous hurdles ahead of them. The largest is locating adequate funding to start a statewide system."

Voters approved a $9-billion bond measure for the rail project in 2008, and the Obama administration subsequently added grants of $3.2 billion. Last year, the Legislature agreed to provide 25% of future greenhouse gas — or cap-and-trade — fees, which could produce $250 million to $1 billion annually for the bullet train. The official completion of the San Francisco-to-L.A. system is scheduled for 2028, meaning that at the high end of revenue estimates it would have cumulative funding of about $26 billion — less than half of the estimated cost.

As usual, the $68-billion cost will likely balloon over the years:

And if the project follows the typical pattern of cost growth for large government projects, experts say it is likely to significantly exceed the $68-billion price tag.

"Those projections are surrounded by uncertainty," Wachs said. "The public should understand that the uncertainties are much greater than the certainties. But our political process doesn't allow us to say 'We don't know what it will cost or how long it will take, but let's get started anyway."

Congressional Republicans, who have controlled the House of Representatives, have vowed not to provide additional money for the project. The party's successful takeover of the U.S. Senate in November was another blow.

"Now it is less likely they are going to get federal money," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the House majority leader. "They haven't solved their problems yet. Their business plan doesn't show it is viable. It could become like the skeleton of an unfinished building and they will have to stop."

Indeed, their customer estimates are laughable:

Ridership forecasts are simply unbelievable. Currently there are about 15 M annual person trips between the LA Basin and SF Bay areas by highway and air, about evenly divided. This is highly unusual. In the US for a trip of this length ~400 miles where there is good air service, the proportion of highway trips is generally much lower. We are comparing a 6 hour road trip with a little over 1 hour air trip. The average airfare, $130, is also unusually cheap, about half the airfare between Washington, DC and NYC for a distance roughly twice as great.

So I ask, why with a rail trip of over 2h40m and fares 50% of airfares, why would 9.5 M LA Basin and SF Bay travelers in 2030 choose rail over highway and air?

What of that 200 mph boast?  The original design of the project called for railroad tracks totally dedicated to the high-speed rail system.  But that proved even more ruinously expensive than the current guestimate.  So now, the plan calls for a "blended" arrangement, where the HSR will share the tracks already used by commuter rail systems.  That will slow the train down to around 60 mph through the cities and towns already serviced by ordinary railroads.

At a cost of $200 million per mile – sure to go up as costs skyrocket – how can anyone believe that this project will be completed when they have only half the funding in place, their ridership estimates are ridiculous, and the train won't go as fast as advertised?

The policitians are banking on a federal bailout when the funds don't materialize.  The reasoning goes, we've already spent $26 billion on this turkey.  Why not spend another $26 billion to finish it?

Californians are going to be left holding the bag on this project when all is said and done.

Ready or not, Californians – and America – here it comes.

After a two-year delay, during which the cost nearly doubled, California's high-speed rail system will break ground this week.  The project – said to cost $68 billion – will link Los Angeles to San Francisco by 2028.

There's only one teensy, tiny problem: they have no idea how they are going to fund it.

LA Times:

The groundbreaking will be led by Gov. Jerry Brown at the future site of the downtown station in Fresno. Brown has made the project one of his highest priorities, investing considerable political capital in what he sees as an important part of his leadership legacy.

The concept for a California bullet train originated in Brown's first terms as governor. Ever since, proponents have dreamed of a modern rail system that could better unite the state's disparate regions. But moving that vision to reality has proved to be one of the most difficult and contentious political issues in recent state history.

"They have overcome quite a lot," said Martin Wachs, a UCLA professor emeritus of urban planning. "They certainly have enormous hurdles ahead of them. The largest is locating adequate funding to start a statewide system."

Voters approved a $9-billion bond measure for the rail project in 2008, and the Obama administration subsequently added grants of $3.2 billion. Last year, the Legislature agreed to provide 25% of future greenhouse gas — or cap-and-trade — fees, which could produce $250 million to $1 billion annually for the bullet train. The official completion of the San Francisco-to-L.A. system is scheduled for 2028, meaning that at the high end of revenue estimates it would have cumulative funding of about $26 billion — less than half of the estimated cost.

As usual, the $68-billion cost will likely balloon over the years:

And if the project follows the typical pattern of cost growth for large government projects, experts say it is likely to significantly exceed the $68-billion price tag.

"Those projections are surrounded by uncertainty," Wachs said. "The public should understand that the uncertainties are much greater than the certainties. But our political process doesn't allow us to say 'We don't know what it will cost or how long it will take, but let's get started anyway."

Congressional Republicans, who have controlled the House of Representatives, have vowed not to provide additional money for the project. The party's successful takeover of the U.S. Senate in November was another blow.

"Now it is less likely they are going to get federal money," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the House majority leader. "They haven't solved their problems yet. Their business plan doesn't show it is viable. It could become like the skeleton of an unfinished building and they will have to stop."

Indeed, their customer estimates are laughable:

Ridership forecasts are simply unbelievable. Currently there are about 15 M annual person trips between the LA Basin and SF Bay areas by highway and air, about evenly divided. This is highly unusual. In the US for a trip of this length ~400 miles where there is good air service, the proportion of highway trips is generally much lower. We are comparing a 6 hour road trip with a little over 1 hour air trip. The average airfare, $130, is also unusually cheap, about half the airfare between Washington, DC and NYC for a distance roughly twice as great.

So I ask, why with a rail trip of over 2h40m and fares 50% of airfares, why would 9.5 M LA Basin and SF Bay travelers in 2030 choose rail over highway and air?

What of that 200 mph boast?  The original design of the project called for railroad tracks totally dedicated to the high-speed rail system.  But that proved even more ruinously expensive than the current guestimate.  So now, the plan calls for a "blended" arrangement, where the HSR will share the tracks already used by commuter rail systems.  That will slow the train down to around 60 mph through the cities and towns already serviced by ordinary railroads.

At a cost of $200 million per mile – sure to go up as costs skyrocket – how can anyone believe that this project will be completed when they have only half the funding in place, their ridership estimates are ridiculous, and the train won't go as fast as advertised?

The policitians are banking on a federal bailout when the funds don't materialize.  The reasoning goes, we've already spent $26 billion on this turkey.  Why not spend another $26 billion to finish it?

Californians are going to be left holding the bag on this project when all is said and done.