California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he is pulling the plug on the state’s massive high-speed rail project after it incurred enormous cost overruns that pushed the potential price tag to more than $77 billion and put the project more than a decade behind schedule.
Doomed by Cost Overruns
The controversial project championed by Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, was intended to link Los Angeles to San Francisco. Voters approved a ballot measure in 2008 to finance and build the approximately 520-mile rail line. At the time, it was estimated the project would cost $33 billion and be completed by 2020. Officials said they hoped to connect the line to San Diego and Sacramento eventually.
Construction fell years behind schedule. A recent audit of the project conducted by the California State Auditor’s office concluded the repeated cost overruns and missed deadlines had inflated the eventual cost to more than $77 billion and the project would not be completed until 2033.
Addressing these setbacks in his first State of the State address on February 12, Newsom said, “Let’s be real. The current project, as planned, would cost too much and respectfully take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.”
Instead of abandoning the project entirely, Newsome said the state will continue construction of a 163 mile segment connecting Merced to Bakersfield in the state’s Central Valley.
‘Bullet-Train to Nowhere’
The project was a government boondoggle from the start, says Baruch Feigenbaum, assistant director of transportation policy for the Reason Foundation.
“California’s high-speed bullet train has been aptly derided as ‘the bullet-train to nowhere,'” said Feigenbaum. “The people of California have realized the train doesn’t measure up because the costs are extremely high, even as far as these sorts of projects go.
“They are grossly frustrated with it because they were promised a direct line between San Francisco and Los Angeles for about $30 billion and they are now being asked to settle for this ridiculous boondoggle in the Central Valley which could cost close to $100 billion or more,” Feigenbaum said. “Most people now are wising up to the fact this was a bad transportation project from the start.”
Calls for Cancellation
Newsom should scuttle the entire project because the segment he wants to complete will serve relatively few people at high costs, says Feigenbaum.
“There are those who still want the train in the Central Valley, the part of the line Newsom is continuing, but I think they see it more as a symbol rather than an actual worthwhile transportation project, since very few people are going to be taking this train,” Feigenbaum said. “Most of the people in that region would be driving anyway, since the Central Valley is relatively low-income and the people who generally use high-speed rail are wealthy business travelers.
“I think just about everybody is a winner if this project is canceled, because it will not do what it says it will do for the price expected,” said Feigenbaum. “If it goes forward, every California taxpayer will be a loser because the project does not serve any worthwhile purpose.”
Sees Better Options
Californians are on the hook for a lot of money just to finish the limited segment Newsome says he wants to complete, says Kerry Jackson, an independent journalist and a fellow at the Pacific Research Institute.
“If the politicians would just say they were sorry and they couldn’t complete this project because it was going to cost too much, it would save taxpayers a great deal of money, as opposed to how much they are going to continue to waste in building and operating the proposed segment,” Jackson said. “It’s not going to make a profit, and it’s going to have to be subsidized, and there are enough reports and studies out there to back this up.
“There are lots of better, cheaper ways to get around California than a high-speed train,” said Jackson. “For instance, Southwest Airlines has good deals in every major city, and I think driverless cars might be in our future. In a driverless car, travellers could get on Highway 405 and just sit back while they’re driven to their destination, which may become a reality before the high-speed rail project even gets completed, and at a cost that would make the expensive high-speed rail look silly by comparison.”
The appeal of trains for Californians is a matter of wanting to be more like Europe, says Jackson.
“I think there are a whole lot of Americans, in California and beyond—especially among Democrats, people from the left side of the political spectrum, and politicians on the East and West Coast—who want to be more like Europe,” said Jackson.
“Former Gov. Brown is the biggest loser on this project,” Jackson said. “Its failure will be part of his legacy, but Gov. Newsom and others could still salvage their reputations and gain something from this if they just cut their losses, move on, and learn a lesson from it.”
Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.