California again delays bullet train first stage, begs feds for more time to avoid funding cutoff

The fiasco of California’s pathetic attempt to build a high-speed rail (HSR) line between Los Angeles and San Francisco continues to generate far more embarrassment than actual completed track. Once again, for what seems like the umpteenth time, California is unable to meet the deadlines imposed by the federal government as a condition of receiving federal aid – in other words, subsidies from other states for building what should be commonly known as “Brown’s Folly,” after Jerry Brown, who go the itch to build it after riding bullet trains in Japan and Europe.

Kathleen Ronayne reports for the Associated Press:

California is again pushing back the deadline and raising the cost for its high-speed rail project, this time asking the Biden administration for a one-year extension on completing construction on a section of track in the Central Valley.

Brian Kelly, the project's chief executive officer, detailed delays and cost changes to the project in a letter released Friday alongside the project's updated business plan. 

The track segment being delayed is the legendary “train to nowhere,” 119 miles of track on flat farmland, connecting Bakersfield to Madera. Not that anybody other than a few railfans a day would want to pay a premium surcharge to get from one Central Valley town to another one about an hour faster than it could be driven. The only reason these tracks are being built first is that they are much, much easier (and cheaper) to build than building through the mountains that surround both the LA Basin and the Bay Area. But even where it is easiest, the project can't deliver results.

The strategy, in other words, is to build something that almost nobody would use, and then demand that money be produced to build the rest. Except that there is not enough money to tunnel into the two sets of mountains, so the “bullet trains” would have to use existing low speed tracks into the two metropolises and thus the total journey time would be too slow to complete with airlines. It’s the “half-fast” train (say it rapidly).

The excuses for the delay are also half-fast:

 "The High-Speed Rail Authority has not been spared nor is it alone in being impacted by COVID-19," Kelly wrote. (snip)

The pandemic caused several setbacks for the project, Kelly wrote. Among them: a delay in procuring rights of way due to limited hours at courts, the need to quarantine workers if they were exposed to coronavirus, a delay in signing track and systems contracts, and the loss of roughly $288 million in revenue expected from the state's cap-and-trade program designed to reduce carbon emissions.

The project has been running for more than a decade and still didn’t try to acquire the necessary land until last year?

I am expecting more delays, even on the revised and delayed timetable:

The authority expects to have started construction on 106 miles of track by the end of the year, though it won’t be completed until 2023, Kelly wrote.

Probably anticipating the plea for more time, the prime contractor on the fiasco released a 36 page letter to the LA Times last month, making clear that it believes responsibility for the delays lies with state officials.

One of the state’s top bullet train contractors has sent a scorching 36-page letter to California high-speed rail officials, contradicting state claims that the line’s construction pace is on target and warning the project could miss a key 2022 federal deadline. 

The letter, obtained by The Times, alleges that a multitude of problems have remained unresolved for years, including rapid turnover of state officials, continuing delays in obtaining land for the rail and the state’s failure to secure agreements with outside parties, including utilities and freight railroads. The delays will result in idled work sites and layoffs of field workers, says the letter, by construction giant Tutor Perini.

As of mid-November, construction teams can not build on more than 500 parcels in the Fresno area because the California High Speed Rail Authority still lacks possession or proper documentation, according to the Jan. 4 letter. The company has completed all the work that could be done efficiently and as a result is now operating at other sites at a slower pace.

“It is beyond comprehension that as of this day, more than two thousand and six hundred calendar days after [official approval to start construction] that the authority has not obtained all of the right of way…” wrote Tutor Perini Vice President of Operations Ghassan Ariqat to Garth Fernandez, the contracting chief at the state rail authority.

The company anticipates layoffs soon, even as the state touts the jobs produced by the gusher of billions of taxpayer dollars being spent.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s yearly economic impact analysis released today underscores the growing value of California’s investment in high-speed rail amid the economic uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since 2006, the Authority has created between 54,300 and 60,400 job years of employment throughout California and invested more than $7.2 billion in planning and construction of the nation’s first high-speed rail system. Approximately 97% of the expenditures are to contractors, consultants and small businesses in California.

“The economic impact of high-speed rail in the Central Valley cannot be overstated,” said Authority Chief Executive Officer Brian Kelly. “Our progress on the construction and planning of clean, fast, reliable electrified high-speed rail continues to provide work and opportunities, despite the pandemic-related challenges of the last 10 months.”

I recently drove down the Central Valley on Highway 99, that parallels the route in many places and observed large concrete structures standing ghost-like, unconnected to any tracks. Here is a ground level shot I took on a very smoky day, due to the huge forest fires then raging (another failure of state government, due to poor forestry management):

Photo credit: author

This aerial shot from the High Speed Rail Authority via the LA Times shows another such large scale, expensive isolated piece of concrete construction. Note the scale of the construction over a minor dip in the land, compared to the conventional rail line next to it. This is part of the reason why untold billions are being squandered.

I am a railfan myself, and have used bullet trains in Japan, Korea, and Europe with great pleasure. They are great for connecting transit-dependent, densely populated cities through densely populated countryside. But both LA and the Bay Area are huge in area, and have very sketchy transit systems. When I fly to LA, which I used to do a lot, I had the choice of 5 airports, being able to choose one near my final destination. Union Station in downtown LA would have been good for about 10% of my journeys. But LAX, Burbank, Orange County, Long Beach or Ontario Airports would have been closer for most of my consulting trips. The same would hold true for most travelers.

If the project is ever completed, the operating costs will produce gigantic red ink every year. Studies of the fares that would have to be charged make it clear that few would use it if capital costs had to be repaid (much of the costs is being borrowed). In order to attract travelers from air, a 3-hour journey would be necessary. With the half-fast approach using existing trackage in the metro areas, that will be impossible.

It is already doomed to failure. There is no good reason to throw good money after bad. Let the concrete track sections stand as a monument to Jerry Brown's ego and government waste.