California's high speed rail delayed another 4 years

The incredible journey of California's high speed rail took another hit this past week when authorities inked a contract revision pushing back the opening of the first segment of the line from 2018 to 2022.

Project costs for this one, 119 mile stretch of track through the relatively empty Central Valley have topped $69 billion, with only a fraction of those funds appropriated. The high speed rail authority has only purchased half the land necessary to complete the first leg of the project and not a single foot of track has been laid.

The feds are blaming opponents of the project, citing lawsuits and other nuisances. But in fact, the project began with no vision about how it would be funded or built.


Concerns about the project’s viability, however, extend well beyond NIMBY-ism and car-bias. The estimated price tag is now equivalent to 35 times the annual federal subsidy for Amtrak. The state’s voters approved $9 billion in bonds for high-speed rail, and Brown has diverted some revenue from California’s carbon trading program to the project, but Republicans shut off the federal spigot when they took back the House of Representatives in 2010. So while Morales says there’s enough money to extend the railway north to San Jose, there’s not yet a long-term funding source to finish the entire job. There is some optimism that private firms can help finance construction in anticipation of profits from running the line, but there is also widespread skepticism about the state’s rosy ridership forecasts.

Meanwhile, the choice to start in the middle, in the sparsely populated and economically depressed Central Valley rather than the dense metropolitan areas to the north and south, has been ridiculed as a recipe for a high-priced train to nowhere. The first segment is actually designed to terminate in an empty lot north of Bakersfield. And the authority recently reversed its plans for its second segment, abruptly announcing that it will head north instead of south—understandable given the engineering challenge of tunneling through mountains en route to Los Angeles, but projecting a bit of a whoopsy-daisy vibe.

“It’s like a Saturday Night Live skit,” Patterson said.

The original rationale for starting in the middle was that all stimulus dollars had to be spent by September 2017, and the Central Valley run seemed relatively “shovel-ready.” It didn’t require massive urban redevelopment or daunting tunnels.

Clearly, though, even the out-of-the-way Central Valley section was less shovel-ready than expected. There have been bitter lawsuits over financing and environmental permitting. There have been protracted negotiations over many of the 1400 parcels the state needs to purchase or seize through eminent domain. As late as 2012, California’s high-speed rail agency had just a dozen employees overseeing the megaproject. And after Brown secured the carbon-trading money, the authority expanded its initial scope of work to include electrification of the line.

Even for a government project, the incompetence and mismanagement startles the mind. The enormous sums already wasted should send politicians who support the project - including Governor Jerry Brown - to jail. How irresponsible is it to get $9 billion in a bond issue without having a clear plan to totally fund the project, or even an idea of where the rail line will go?

The don't know how to build it. They can't fund it. They can't decide where it should go. The terminus is an empty lot? Are they serious?

Think of all the things the state could have done with that money, starting with a tax cut for residents. Instead, Californians are stuck with a white elephant that will never be completed and even if it is, will have to subsidize riders forever.



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