In 1962, the Mona Lisa was assessed at an insurance value of $100 million. That would be about $837 million today, and not even close to the most expensive painting in the world. The priciest creation ever made with paint is not in the Louvre Museum but in a government office in California, where the latest artist’s illustration of the bullet train has cost taxpayers about $5 billion, and counting.
“Let’s be real,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom in February, announcing something that sounded at first as if he was cutting the losses and ending the project. It wasn’t that at all.
You could say it was surreal, but even Salvador Dali couldn’t have dreamed up the latest report from the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
“Delivering High-Speed Rail to Californians” is the title, and that’s artful, too. It’s in the present tense, to make it appear that it’s happening.
If you could connect this report to a polygraph machine, the needle would fly off the dial in the middle of the first sentence. “The California High-Speed Rail Authority is responsible …” (BUZZ!) “for planning, designing, building and operating the first high-speed rail in the nation. California high-speed rail will connect the mega-regions of the state …” (BUZZ! BUZZ! BUZZ!)
The new plan calls for the bullet train to speed between Merced and Bakersfield.
What’s the rush?
The segment of the bullet train that’s currently under construction runs 119 miles through the Central Valley. The latest estimate of the cost to complete it is $12.4 billion, more than double what it was originally supposed to cost, and even at that price it’s not expected to start operating until 2028.
That will be the 20th anniversary of the year California voters were told they were approving $9.95 billion of bonds for a high-speed train connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles. It was going to take eight years and cost $33 billion. It could not require a tax increase to build or a public subsidy to operate.
The federal government kicked in a few billion dollars for the project on the same understanding.
Now, much of that funding is at risk. The updated 171-mile route is projected to cost $20.4 billion, but nobody ever agreed to pay that kind of money for a train between Merced and Bakersfield.
Every business plan released by the high-speed rail authority has included an analysis of ridership and revenue projections, essential to demonstrating that the bullet train could operate successfully without a public subsidy.
Using sophisticated statistical methods developed by high-priced consultants, the rail authority once estimated ridership at 90 million passengers per year. When the laughter died down, the estimate was adjusted to 25 million.
No amount of numerology could conjure a ridership estimate like that for the route between Merced and Bakersfield, already connected by a highway for a drive that takes less than three hours and by a train that will take you from one place to the other for roughly the price of two movie tickets and a small bucket of popcorn.
Not only does the rail authority lack the money to finish the project, it may lose the money it thinks it already has.
The Legislature has yet to appropriate $4.2 billion of the $9.95 billion Proposition 1A bond funds approved by voters. The report notes that the rail authority must prepare funding plans that “demonstrate that the requirements of Proposition 1A have been met.” That will be creative. Maybe it can use a green screen effect to put the Golden Gate Bridge in Merced and the Hollywood sign in Bakersfield.
The federal funds are at risk, too. “It is possible that the Authority will lose access to those funds, which would result in total available funding being reduced by $929 million,” the report says. “If that occurs, the Authority would work with the California Department of Finance and the Administration on alternatives.”
That sounds a lot like a tax increase, but Proposition 1A prohibited a tax increase to build the bullet train.
The construction of the bullet train in the Central Valley is currently financed by 25 percent of the money that flows into the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund in Sacramento. If you’re wondering where that money is coming from, weigh your wallet after you pay for gasoline, electricity and anything that’s moved around the state by truck.
The cap-and-trade program imposes extra costs on industries that produce greenhouse gases, like utilities and refineries. The revenue is derived from a state auction of emissions permits. “The program experienced a period of volatility during 2016 and 2017 that resulted in lower than expected receipts for the project,” the rail authority’s report complains, noting that the potential for future volatility could create “cash flow challenges.”
The cap-and-trade program was set to expire in 2020 but was renewed by the Legislature in July 2017 for another 10 years. “There are currently no funds committed or appropriated for the project after 2030,” the report frets.
Well, they did say the train would be operating self-sufficiently by 2028.
Maybe they should call in the art experts from Sotheby’s or Christie’s. On page 138 of the report there’s a landscape painting titled, “California High Speed Rail Stations are Planned for Net Zero Energy Consumption.” If they can find the right buyer, it might bring billions at auction.
Originally published in the Los Angeles Daily News.