Bullet train went from peak California innovation to the project from hell

Construction workers in 2017 at a section of viaduct for the high-speed rail line in Fresno County. The project ballooned to $44 billion over budget and 13 years behind schedule.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

It was billed as the most ambitious public works project since the transcontinental railroad opened up the West.

The high-speed rail network would transform California — cleaner air, less congested freeways and airports, and more limited suburban sprawl with a whole new style of housing around rail stops.

“Fresno could become a bedroom community of the Silicon Valley,” the California High-Speed Rail Authority said a month before voters approved Proposition 1A in November 2008.


Yet bite after bite, huge cost overruns, mismanagement, political concessions and delays ate away at the sleek and soaring vision of a bullet train linking San Francisco to San Diego. A project meant to drive home California’s role as the high-tech vanguard of the nation was looking more and more like a pepped-up Amtrak route through the Central Valley.

During his first State of the State address Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he was scaling back the $77-billion project. Though his wording was open to interpretation, it appeared to sound the death knell, not necessarily for the project itself, but for the original dream.

The Democratic governor said he supports finishing the controversial high-speed rail line between Bakersfield and Merced but needs to reassess the crucial legs connecting major urban centers in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

Social media erupted with quips about Bakersfield joining such storied bullet train destinations as Madrid, Tokyo, Milan, Beijing and Paris.

Even Morocco, with an economy just 4% the size of California’s, managed to build high-speed rail linking Casablanca, Rabat and Tangier.

But Newsom did not actually call for any of the route to be cut. More than anything, his comments signaled that he had deep reservations about the viability of the project and would not be the same booster Gov. Jerry Brown was.

President Trump tweeted Wednesday night about the shift, declaring the project a “‘green’ disaster” and demanding that California return $3.5 billion in federal funds. “We want that money back now.”

Newsom tweeted back moments later, calling Trump’s claim “fake news” and refusing to return the money.

Finishing the Central Valley portion of the line first has long been the plan. The question left unanswered after Newsom’s speech is how aggressively Sacramento will pursue connecting the line to the Bay Area and to Los Angeles, said Rebecca Saltzman, the vice president of the Bay Area Rapid Transit board of directors.

She said she was heartened that Newsom has committed to finishing environmental review documents for the line across the state — a key step toward construction and a process that can take years, even for projects that are smaller and less controversial than high-speed rail.

But to succeed, Saltzman said, the project needs someone who will make high-speed rail a priority, such as Brown, whose dedication is the reason “it’s gotten so far,” she said.

“We need to see a champion emerge,” Saltzman said. “We need to keep the momentum going.”

The momentum has been halting. Ten years after voters approved it, the project is $44 billion over budget and 13 years behind schedule.

A state audit in November blamed flawed decision-making, organizational faults and poor contract management by the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Now many experts don’t believe it would make the trip from L.A. to San Francisco in the two hours and 40 minutes mandated in the bond measure.

The original plans to build elevated viaducts between Los Angeles and Burbank and through the Silicon Valley — on which the trains could travel 220 mph — were met with strident community opposition. Now planners call for the trains to share commuter tracks, moving at much slower speeds and being subjected to delays.

The rail authority also waded into a morass trying to acquire the land it needed in the Central Valley. The agency originally estimated it would cost $332 million to buy up properties to build the route. But cutting through orchards, vineyards and dairies with vast and sophisticated irrigation and trellis systems proved profoundly more complicated than was expected. The land acquisition is now budgeted at $1.5 billion and tied up in endless litigation.

“Somebody at high-speed rail drew a line for a route on Google Earth and had no idea of what was on the ground or how they are affecting it,” Michael Dias, a Hanford lawyer who defends farmers and is a grape and nut grower, told The Times last year.

And then there’s California’s dynamic geology to contend with. In 2016, engineers said they had to dig a 13.5-mile tunnel through the Diablo Range because their earlier plans cut too close to the San Luis Reservoir. But boring through the unstable mix of hard sandstone, weak shale and boulders has put the estimated cost of that single stretch between $5.6 billion and $14.4 billion.

Even before these problems came to light, Californians had buyer’s remorse over the growing price tag. In 2013, a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found that just 43% of residents wanted the project to go forward.

It did — mostly through sheer force of will of Jerry Brown.

“The high-speed rail links us from the past to the future; from the south to Fresno and the north,” Brown said in 2015 at a groundbreaking ceremony at a vacant lot in Fresno. “This is truly a California project, bringing us together today.”

Some say the most significant effects of Newsom’s announcement Tuesday may not be in scaling back the bullet train, but in marking a shift in what elected leadership thinks is possible in an increasingly complicated state.

“It comes across as such a narrowing of ambition and horizon,” said Miriam Pawel, who wrote “The Browns of California,” a biography of the Brown political dynasty.

“One of the things that was a signature of Brown, in all his incarnations, was the ability to look very far ahead and see that something that seems like it would be really difficult and expensive and take forever — that in the end, we’ll look back on it and wonder how we lived without it,” Pawel said.

But certainly it was vastly cheaper and easier to build monumental projects in the past.

When Brown’s father, Gov. Pat Brown, championed the State Water Project in the 1950s, the environmental movement did not exist and environmental laws had not been passed, making construction far quicker, cheaper and easier.

“It’s a reflection that it’s so much more complicated to build in California now,” Pawel said. “It’s a very significant difference, clearly.”

Now the rail authority faces the need to secure $50 billion in additional funding to complete the project, while Newsom’s priorities lay elsewhere.

Paul Dyson, the president of the nonprofit Rail Passenger Assn. of California and Nevada, said Newsom’s comments were “very vague and wishy-washy,” and could hamper future efforts to secure funding and complete the project.

“Even if he didn’t cancel the project, he used such a negative tone that if he is to go to the federal government, or to private enterprise, to look for new funds, they’re not going to be very enthused,” Dyson said. “If he sends such a negative message, why would they get on board?”

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called Newsom’s comments Tuesday “very short-sighted.”

LaHood said it is difficult to say how California’s decision will affect the rest of the country, because no other region was actively pursuing high-speed rail. “They’ve been way, way ahead of the curve,” he said of the state.

James Moore, a USC engineering professor who researches transportation projects and is a longtime critic of California’s high-speed rail project, defended Newsom, saying he was just being realistic.

He said the project was set up to fail because the bond measure that California voters approved included a stipulation that the train would pay for its own operation, meaning it could not receive operational subsidies. That is exceedingly rare across the world, Moore said. Just two high-speed rail lines operate at a profit: Paris to Lyon, and Osaka to Tokyo.

“If the rail option is more expensive than aircraft, and slower than aircraft, who are we going to attract?” Moore said.

He said Newsom needed to go further and halt the project altogether because continuing to build a white elephant in the farmlands is a vast waste of money.

“He’s refusing to rip off the Band-Aid,” Moore said. “Slowly peeling off the Band-Aid is not the solution.”