Why California’s ‘shovel ready’ train isn’t


Let’s face facts: California just doesn’t do trains very well.

Now, freeways -- those we’re good at. We’ve got the car culture thing down pat. Getting most places by freeway is a snap: Why, from Pasadena to the beach, you just take the 110 to the 105 to the 405 to the 1. Although you could just take the 110 to the 10 to the 1, or, if you’re inclined, the 2 to the 134 to the 101 to the 1. (Oh, but watch out for SigAlerts, Caltrans construction and road-ragers.) Plus, there is usually plenty of parking -- mostly by valet, but heck, no one parks their own car if they don’t have to -- and the weather keeps our cars shiny and new-looking.

Trains, though, are another story -- or several stories. For instance, there’s the sad tale in Sunday’s Times of the nonexistent LAX link in L.A.’s light-rail/subway system. (As if anyone but non-Angelenos would be caught dead taking a train to the airport!)

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And then there’s the infamous high-speech rail project, which is supposed to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles via “bullet train.” Except that the “bullets” are proving to be very expensive. And hard to find and load, apparently.

My colleague Ralph Vartabedian reported Sunday that the project, which was labeled “shovel ready” three years ago, qualifying it for federal stimulus funding, has proved to be, well, not-so-ready (although presumably shovels have been set aside).

As Vartabedian writes:

In early 2012, state officials said construction would begin that year. Early this year, officials adjusted their sights, saying they would begin building the massive new transportation network in the spring, later announcing the groundbreaking would take place in July.

Now, it appears that serious construction may not begin this year, and could be delayed into 2014.

Why the delays? Well:

Factors contributing to the sluggish start include delays in getting a construction company under contract and lack of key federal permits.

Oh, that. I suppose that could set you back a bit, not having anyone to build the thing and not having the right permits. But hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day, though presumably the Romans didn’t worry much about permits, and they did have people lined up to do it, with whips to urge on the workers.


Honestly, though, I think the big problem is that people just don’t understand what “shovel ready” means. As any male head of household faced with a “honey do” list can attest, the term “shovel ready” never means that you are actually ready to, uh, work. Rather, it means you have a grand plan for work.

And this plan has many components: It involves several trips to Home Depot; numerous consulting sessions with pals, preferably at the local sports bar, about best construction practices; acquiring, at great expense and over many weeks/months/years, the proper tools and supplies; renting those tools that are otherwise unaffordable; learning to use said tools; losing said tools, requiring the re-renting or repurchasing of them; and, finally, scheduling the work around baseball games, college/NFL games, golf and poker nights (no, you don’t work at night, but you can’t play poker at night if you aren’t rested, so you can’t work on those days either).

Given that, it’s little wonder that high-speed rail has yet to come to the Golden State. Heck, I’m surprised they’ve been able to come up with that artist’s rendering of what high-speed rail will look like. That alone must’ve occupied a few guys for several months. (Then again, that part of the project was probably “artist’s brush ready.”)

So, when can we really expect to shoot that bullet train? I’m guessing here, but I’d say about the same time as you finish that redwood deck in your backyard.

Or maybe we could consult that Maya calender. Or read Nostradamus.

Or perhaps just take a cue from the great Johnny Mathis, who crooned “The Twelfth of Never.”



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