High Speed Rail Update Spurs Review of Original Arguments Made About the Project

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

A new report on the ever-changing promises on the high speed rail is out and it serves as a reminder that ballot arguments made on behalf or opposed to ballot measures don’t always play out as promised.

The project update report issued by the California High Speed Rail Authority was met with headlines that the cost of the initial stage will go up nearly $2 billion. Cost increases for this project have been par for the course since voters approved a bond in 2008 to help finance the project. Other projections about the bullet train’s completion date and speed of travel have likewise gone by the wayside over the last decade.

While many publications have detailed well the current situation with the bullet train, I thought it might be interesting to revisit the pro and con arguments made when Proposition 1A, the $9.95 billion bond to get the rail rolling was on the 2008 ballot.

Did any projection hit the mark? Following are some of the arguments with my thoughts in italics.

Leaders of the San Francisco and Los Angeles Chambers of Commerce and the head of the High Speed Rail Authority signed the initial pro argument.

In the ballot booklet sent to all voters, Proposition 1A promised to build the high speed rail system from San Francisco Transbay Terminal and Los Angeles Union Station to Anaheim for $45 billion, the funds made up of a combination of federal, state, local and private dollars. (See update below.) Of course, we are now focusing on the leg from Bakersfield to Merced and additional environmental reports for the entire project for the cost of $20 billion—about half the initial projected cost when only about 20% of the proposed track will be in place.

Supporters of the rail project argued in the ballot book that the train would provide a 2.5-hour ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles for $50 a person. Neither of those numbers looks realistic today.

In addition, advocates declared that matching private and federal funding would be identified BEFORE (capitalized in the ballot booklet) state bond funds are spent. State bonds are being supplemented with cap-and-trade funds with no private money identified and what federal money has been offered may be recalled by the current administration in Washington that said the rail has not lived up to promises.

Further, the ballot argument said that 90% of the bond funds would be spent on system construction, not more studies, plans, and engineering activities. They forgot to mention the excessive money given to consultants working on the project, which Gov. Newsom intends to cut back now.

 The rebuttal to the yes arguments signed by an assemblyman and leaders of a couple of transportation organizations did mention consultants—but those consultants who worked on the preliminary planning stages. They also argued that there were no guarantees the project would ever be completed and that the interests in support of the bond were “notorious” for being involved with cost overruns. No argument about cost overruns, even the rail authority acknowledges the initial cost projections were low. In fact, the chair of the rail authority noted in his letter introducing the new report that the new cost projections could rise with unpredictable developments.

The argument against Prop 1A signed by two state senators and the head of a statewide taxpayers group said the project could hit $90 billion. Their prediction was a lot closer to the mark than the one provided by the Legislative Analyst. The current total is expected to be $77 billion but it will probably rise.

This argument also warned that the bond funds were intended to encourage the federal government and the private sector to make a significant contribution toward the construction. They said no money could come from private and federal sources leaving the taxpayers on the hook. Gov. Brown had to drive cap-and-trade funds to the bullet train construction with the reality of no private money and little federal money.

Two members of the construction industry and one regional business leader signed the rebuttal to the No argument. They contended that users of the system would pay for the system. Yet to be proven. Given the history of the project, call me skeptical.

The rebuttal pointed to 160,000 construction jobs that would be created along with 450,000 permanent jobs. The chairman’s letter in the new report talks of “tens of thousands” of jobs being created. Perhaps the 160,000 jobs figure will be reached but we are not there yet. The permanent job count is well off into the future, if at all. Another unreachable promise?

Finally, the rebuttal authors wrote, “Signers of the ballot argument against Proposition 1A are habitual opponents of transportation improvements. Their claims are wrong and their data simply made up.” From the advantage of looking back 11 years after the vote, it seems the pro-Prop 1A side was making up the data.

Ballot arguments are campaign documents and conjectures—there is little science involved. But it is a good exercise once in a while to see if promises were kept or not as voters deal with new sets of promises in coming ballot wars.

Read the ballot arguments for yourself here.

(UPDATE: The original $45 billion figure was for both phases 1 and 2 of the rail project which included running the rail line to Sacramento and San Diego. The San Francisco to Anaheim phase 1 was originally pegged at $33 billion.)

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