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California bullet train isn’t the jobs creator some claim

A "5,000 workers and counting" banner appears on a long, elevated structure.
A California rail authority banner claims 5,000 workers on the project on a viaduct in Fresno.
(California High-Speed Rail Authority)

Atop massive viaducts and bridges under construction for the bullet train in the San Joaquin Valley, the state has hung banners proudly proclaiming “5,000 workers and counting.”

The slogan is catchy, but misleading. The state rail authority has never had anywhere near 5,000 construction workers on the high-speed rail project at any one time. A review by The Times also found other transportation programs generally employ more workers for every $1 million in spending.

The banners are an important part of a campaign that the California High-Speed Rail Authority has waged to maintain political support, calling attention to the hourly jobs it has funded in the depressed economy of California’s heartland.

As the Legislature girds for a battle over a $4.2-billion appropriation needed this year for the bullet train, the jobs issue and the crucial political support of labor unions will play an outsize role in keeping the project rolling along.

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Under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plans, about 90% the spending over the next nine years will be in the Central Valley. That is on a collision course with a majority in the state Assembly that want to shift some of the spending to bullet train segments in Southern California and the Bay Area.

Proponents, led by Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood), say that shift would bring transportation benefits to more people much sooner and most likely generate more jobs than focusing investment in the Central Valley.

Costs are rising for California’s high-speed rail project, focused on the Central Valley, as it confronts reduced revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade program.

The boast of 5,000 jobs refers to the number of workers dispatched from union halls. Each time a worker is sent to a job site, whether for one day or hundreds of days, it counts as a job for the purpose of the banners.

Rail authority Chief Executive Brian Kelly defended the worker count as a valid measure of progress, saying the authority has been doing it for years.

Nonetheless, the ongoing employment on the project is just 20% of what the banners say. The rail authority currently has about 1,000 carpenters, ironworkers, operating engineers and other hard hats at various construction sites stretching 119 miles from Madera to Wasco. That is down from 1,174 in November. Construction companies have laid off some workers because the state doesn’t have enough land to build on.

The project’s history of problems has forced the state to spend a lot of money that does not go to hourly workers, but rather for consultants, design changes, claims filed by contractors for delays caused by the rail authority, and much else.

“The efficiency of spending money on public works varies widely,” said James Moore, a USC professor who specializes in transportation engineering. “Waste is a matter of degree. A poorly managed project will employ more professionals trying to dig their way out of the hole they are in.”

Kelly said the employment needs to be viewed through the prism of disadvantaged communities in the Central Valley, and the economic malaise.

“We are coming through the COVID pandemic that saw California lose 1.6 million jobs, and in that period we were able to increase jobs,” he said. “Infrastructure creates well-paying jobs.”

Rail authority documents, however, indicate the project is not a very strong source of hourly jobs for its large rate of spending.

An internal report, which was obtained by The Times, noted that the construction program has generated a total of 3.9 million hours of craft labor between 2015, when construction began, and the end of February. The average direct pay, health coverage, pension contributions and other benefits to union labor run about $66 per hour, based on interviews with union officials and on the master labor agreement for Southern California.

It means that hourly workers have received about $265 million of the $6.1 billion that has been spent on construction, representing just 4%. Of the total $8.1 billion spent on the project, the labor portion is even smaller, 3%. The $265 million is less than what the rail authority spends every three months.

Every public works project is unique in its contracts, construction pace and engineering, but in broad terms the high-speed rail project appears to generate fewer jobs than others.

The largest state highway project, the $2.1-billion widening of Interstate 405 through Orange County, spends about $1 million per day and has 1,000 union jobs on site, according to figures provided by the Orange County Transportation Authority.

By comparison, the bullet train spends about $3.5 million per day and had 997 jobs in February, the same number of jobs for three times the spending, according the rail authority’s most recent progress report.

Another comparison is the automated people mover train system, transportation hub and new car rental facility at Los Angeles International Airport. The $5.5-billion project is being built in four years, resulting in a burn rate of $4 million per day. It is employing 3,450 workers, more than triple the employment relative to the spending rate of the bullet train.

An exception is Metro’s purple line extension, the massive $9.5-billion Westside subway project. It has 656 workers and its average spending rate over the nine-year schedule is $2.8 million per day, resulting in a slightly lower employment rate than the bullet train. But construction experts say underground projects typically do not require a lot of hard hats and bear high equipment costs with tunnel-boring machines.

Kelly, the rail chief, said the bullet train project, despite the recently layoffs, has added many jobs in the last two years and will move up to 1,700 to 2,000 in the next two years, as it moves to full-speed construction.

“I am happy we are at 1,000,” he said, adding that the many jobs outside the hourly classifications —administrative, technical, executive and others — have received more than $4 billion in income dating to 2006.

Chuck Riojas, executive director of building trades councils in four Central Valley counties, said the bullet train is the largest construction project in the region and has put young workers solidly in the middle class. “It is a good number, but obviously we would always hope for more.”

California officials have long justified the bullet train on four key attributes: a high-capacity alternative to cars and air travel, reduced greenhouse gases, long-term economic development in the Central Valley and lots of construction jobs.

The Biden administration is said to be mulling a $3-trillion infrastructure plan it may soon unveil. California transportation agencies are onboard.

In its 2012 business plan, issued the year the Legislature voted to approve the start of construction, the rail authority claimed the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco segment would create up to 1.25 million “job years” of employment during construction — which translates to more than 50,000 workers over 21 years of building. Those projections now seem wildly optimistic.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has praised the California bullet train project and recently asserted the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan would create 19 million jobs, a claim that critics say was vastly overstated. Such jobs claims are part of selling many government programs, whether they are military hardware, water projects or railroads.

“The benefits of how many workers will be employed tend to be overstated on every big infrastructure project,” said Richard Little, an infrastructure policy consultant and visiting research scholar at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “If the sole purpose is to put people to work, then maybe we should build pyramids. The high-speed rail is the biggest money pit in California at the moment.”


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