Finally, Some Honesty from State Leaders on High-Speed Rail

Kerry Jackson
Kerry Jackson is a Fellow at the California Center for Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

Jerry Brown wants to burnish his legacy with a high-speed rail line that would whip passengers up and down the state. But he’s more likely to be remembered as the governor who couldn’t make his fabulously over-cost train run on time.

Brown’s dream train, according to the self-described “father” of the project, is no longer even high-speed rail. Quentin L. Kopp now thinks it is a “mangled” and “distorted” “train robbery.”

“It is foolish, and it is almost a crime to sell bonds and encumber the taxpayers of California at a time when” it’s become clear that the line will never reach the travel times the public was told to expect, Kopp, the one-time chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority, told the Reason Foundation.

Kopp’s opposition has led him to be party to one of the many lawsuits that have been filed against the train. Reason reports that “he aims to stop the project on the grounds that the agency broke numerous promises to voters enshrined in the 2008 ballot measure, including that all the financing for a segment had to be in place before construction could begin.”

When voters approved Proposition 1A, their support was based on assurances that the rail would cost $33 billion, with $9.5 billion streaming in from a bond issue, the remainder from federal and private sources. But a bit more than one year later, the estimated cost jumped to $43 billion. By late 2011, the estimated range was between $98.5 billion and $117 billion, at least more than three times the initial projection and as much as nearly four times.

Revised plans in 2012 dropped the cost to $68 billion, roughly where it stands today, according to some estimates — yet still more than twice the original amount.

Estimated travel times have increased, as well. Voters thought California would be getting a 220 mph bullet train. But that appears unlikely. A report issued by the Reason Foundation says that instead of rushing between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2:40, as first presented, the fastest times on that route over the first phase of the project “are estimated to operate at from 3:50 to 4:40.”

Voters were also told that the system would support itself. But longer travel times will make that difficult. If it turns out that the Los Angeles-San Francisco trip is 3:50, ridership will be about 25 percent lower than if it were three hours, says the Reason study. If it’s as slow as 4:40, ridership will be half the forecast. If ticket sales fall far below optimistic expectations, whose dollars will make it self-sufficient?

Of course the system could make up for low ridership by raising fares — which have already almost doubled, from $55 to $105 for the San Francisco-Los Angeles route. But higher fares would further decrease ridership. Who, then, is next in line to make up revenue shortfalls?

Taxpayers, of course, which voters should have expected. High-speed rail systems are voracious tax consumers. Far from being self-sustaining, the high-speed rail lines in Europe and Japan require fat taxpayer subsidies to continue operations.

But that’s not the totality of the high-speed rail’s problems. The Associated Press reported on Sept. 20 that “several members” of the board have acknowledged that “repeated budget overruns are damaging the project’s public image” and called for more thorough budget oversight. At the board meeting the day before, when members approved roughly $50 million in contract amendments “to deal with unanticipated construction and environmental review costs,” member Lynn Schenk said “we have a credibility issue,” the AP said. Schenk is a former Democratic congresswoman and served as chief of staff to Former Gov. Gray Davis.  Like Kopp, she has also been an advocate for high-speed rail.

The project has also been set back by multiple construction delays. It is at least seven years behind. A section in the Central Valley, which oddly was the project’s kickoff point, was to be completed in 2017. But an analysis presented late last year by the Federal Railroad Administration says it won’t be finished until 2024, the Los Angeles Times reported in January.

More than $3 billion has already been spent on Brown’s “bullet” train. At least $68 billion might be blown through even before the almost-certain taxpayer subsidies start flowing to keep the system running. Better to drop the project now, count those dollars as sunk, then change the policy focus to finding a way to finance needed road repairs so Californians can dodge the $52 billion tax hike that Sacramento says is necessary to fix our battered infrastructure. The added value is we also escape the millstone of another political vanity project.

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