It’s official: California’s high-speed rail project is an orphan.
The final blow came Feb. 12 when Gov. Gavin Newsom in his State of the State speech declared that the bullet train linking the Bay Area and Los Angeles would “cost too much and, respectfully, take too long.”
Newsom observed that the project had suffered from “too little oversight and not enough transparency” and concluded: “Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A. I wish there were.”
Wishes won’t get the project done. Reality, however, dictates that it get done. Let’s agree to the problems mentioned by Newsom, and not only by him. A devastating state audit of the project issued in November provided chapter and verse of the missteps and mismanagement of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
Some of these missteps resulted from political pressure to turn the project from an L.A.-to-S.F. rail line to one serving inland communities along the route, and to minimize the disruption caused by routing and construction by using existing infrastructure — that is, low-speed rails. Some were due to “organizational weaknesses,” which permeated the project top-to-bottom.
As a signature project of former Gov. Jerry Brown, the project also came under political attack. Republican Neel Kashkari made "smashing Gov. Brown’s crazy train” the centerpiece of his campaign to unseat Brown in the 2014 election. (He got trounced, 60%-40%.)
The truth is, however, that a high-speed rail connection between the Bay Area and Southern California is a crucial element of California’s future.
As I wrote in 2016, while cost estimates (now about $77 billion) and ridership estimates have shifted, “the project’s rationale hasn't changed: to dramatically remake the state's transportation network, relieving pressure on air and road infrastructure that can't possibly accommodate long-term population growth.”
California doesn’t have the money or the political capacity to build out its existing transportation infrastructure to accommodate this pressure. The rail authority has estimated that its project would obviate the need for 3,000 lane-miles of freeway, five airport runways and 90 departure gates costing $100 billion total. Some also contend that, once it's built, the rail system will help the economy by reducing vehicular exhaust in favor of cleaner sources of electricity, especially renewables, to power the trains.
One doesn’t have to accept these figures as gospel to understand that the state will need high-speed rail, or that of all the transit corridors in the United States, this one is a prime candidate.
The project hasn’t been hampered solely by incompetence at the rail authority. California voters imposed what may have been impossible specifications for the project in 2008, when they authorized nearly $10 billion in state bonds via Proposition 1A.
The ballot measure mandated that the train carry passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in no more than two hours and 40 minutes — as much as an hour shorter than many experts thought could be reasonably expected.
The idea was to make the route competitive with flying. It’s true that a flight between those two destinations spends about 90 minutes in the air and on taxiways, but as passenger demand increases and the air corridor becomes more congested, it’s a safe bet that planes will be spending more time backed up on the ground and circling in the air.
Proposition 1A also barred operating subsidies, and funding for every segment was required to be identified before construction of that segment could begin.
This was an enormous mistake, perpetuated by critics who imagined that the project should “pay for itself.” Massive infrastructure projects almost never pay for themselves, at least not directly, and certainly not at first. As James Moore, a USC engineering professor and longtime critic of California’s high-speed rail project, told my colleagues Laura J. Nelson and Joe Mozingo, only two high-speed rail lines in the world operate at a profit: Paris to Lyon, and Osaka to Tokyo.
But that’s why we place big infrastructure projects in the hands of government: The public sector is designed to spread their costs not only to the direct beneficiaries — in this case, passengers — but also to the community at large, which will reap indirect but indisputable benefits. These include cleaner air and more efficiency for passengers as well as everyone they serve.
As we mentioned in 2016, the main problem with the high-speed rail project might be that the public was misled into thinking it could be built faster and more cheaply than was ever in the cards. Infrastructure projects like this often take decades to come to fruition, with the finished product sometimes unrecognizable to its original promoters.
With any such project, "you can't be completely sure of what it will cost," Martin Wachs, an expert on transportation and urban planning at UCLA and a member of the peer review committee monitoring the business plans of the high-speed rail project. "The technology changes as it's being built, the demand pattern changes as it's being built. There's an enormous amount of uncertainty."
One clue might be sufficient to tell us how misguided is the notion that the rail project should be scrapped: It’s a view supported by President Trump. His administration is threatening to hold back nearly $1 billion in undisbursed funding for the train and demanding the return of another $2.5 billion.
Trump’s position is easily dismissed. First, the demand for repayment comes devoid of any rational underpinning beyond a desire to take a shot at a big blue state — typical for a White House that knows nothing about anything and wears its ignorance as a badge of honor.
In the words of my colleague Ralph Vartabedian, whose knowledge of this project is encyclopedic, Trump’s determination to cancel the project funding “involves complex administrative law, which probably will require formal hearings, representation by attorneys and a long decision process within the federal government, as well as potential legal challenges in federal court.”
A federal administration devoting even a single brain cell to transportation policy would be looking for ways to get this project done, not for a new set of monkey wrenches to throw into the works. That’s not the Trump method.
The tragedy of California’s high-speed rail project is that so much time and money have been wasted since 2008. The only visible progress is part of the route between Bakersfield and Merced, which Newsom says he supports completing.
Because of that, the project is vulnerable to criticism that it can’t be finished and will be doomed forever to remain a train to nowhere. It gives us no pleasure to predict that if that becomes true, then by 2040 or so, Californians will be kicking themselves for failing to do more to get it done now.
The bullet train looks like a lost cause today because no one wants to take on the indisputable challenges of rectifying the errors of the last 10 years and figuring out how to start from scratch. But there’s no escaping the necessity.
As Rebecca Saltzman, the vice president of the Bay Area Rapid Transit board of directors, told Nelson and Mozingo, the project today lacks a high-profile, powerful leader. This won’t be an easy job — even the dedication of the popular and respected Brown didn’t keep the critics from swarming. (He wasn’t helped by the people he appointed to the authority.)