Surprise! California high-speed rail cost explodes

posted at 1:00 pm on August 14, 2011 by Ed Morrissey

Do I hate to say, “I told you so“?  Er … not really:

Building tracks for the first section of California’s proposed high-speed rail line will cost $2.9 billion to $6.8 billion more than originally estimated, raising questions about the affordability of the nation’s most ambitious rail project at a time when its planning and finances are under fire.

A 2009 business plan developed for the California High-Speed Authority, the entity overseeing the project, estimated costs at about $7.1 billion for the equivalent stretch of tracks. Officials say those estimates were made before detailed engineering work and feedback from communities along the proposed route.

The latest estimates are contained in two environmental impact studies that were shared with The Associated Press before their public release on Tuesday.

In May, I explained in my column at The Week that the first section in question connects two population centers that don’t have much population at all:

Thanks to rules attached to federal subsidies in President Obama’s stimulus package, California has to break ground on the project by next year. That has forced the state to focus much of its $3.5 billion on an effort to connect the bustling metropolises of… Borden and Corcoran. The latter is a town of fewer than 25,000 people located 174 miles north of Los Angeles, while Borden, 167 miles south of San Francisco, is an unincorporated area that doesn’t even have a population listing. Its county, Madera, boasts a population of 148,000, making it 33rd out of 58 counties in California in population.

Taxpayers throughout the country therefore paid more than $3 billion to connect fewer than 175,000 people by rail. That may not be a “train to nowhere,” as the Times‘ editors put it, but it’s pretty darned close. Moreover, thanks to California’s own budget meltdowns, the state won’t allow any bond issues for rail projects that don’t generate enough revenue to pay for themselves — and with the fabulous destinations of Borden and Corcoran as end points, the state won’t sell enough tickets to have the engines pulling out of the station.

The AP confirms that this is the section where costs appear to have almost doubled in the past three months:

Construction of the first stretch of tracks – as much as 140 miles from south of Merced to just north of Bakersfield – is scheduled to begin by September 2012 using $3.5 billion in federal money and an estimated $2.8 billion from the sale of state bonds approved by voters.

The higher cost estimates already have been factored into the federally funded construction, van Ark said.

As a native Californian and a long-time resident of the state (over 30 years), I can confirm that the populations around Merced and Bakersfield would dearly love to go somewhere else … but not switch places.  Now it appears that the original, ridiculous estimated cost to connect two points in relative Nowhereland have either doubled or tripled since the Obama administration funded the project.

Let’s put this in perspective.  The higher-end estimate of just the cost overruns is more than twice the cost of Cash for Clunkers.  It’s also about one-sixth of the entire reduction to the FY2011 budget forced by Republicans in April after a long showdown with Democrats.  The California high-speed rail is not a train to nowhere — it’s an express to bankruptcy, especially if the project continues past this sideline spur.

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Keep your garbage conspiracy theories to yourself.

fiatboomer on August 14, 2011 at 3:59 PM

Oh relax but you are off base if you do not think there is a little bit of a control aspect of the whole push for rail.

My problem with it is that we cannot afford it and it almost always is subsidized. Here’s a thought : Pay the full price. In Ohio Kasich killed the rail bill. Had it gone through the the tax payer would have paid 1/2 the cost of every ticket sold.

CW on August 14, 2011 at 4:40 PM

If I choose to take Metrorail to a Redskins game instead of driving the nasty Capital Beltway and then having to pay a crapload of money to Dan Snyder to park, well guess what – I like that option.

fiatboomer on August 14, 2011 at 3:59 PM

Interesting use of words since your fellow taxpayers are subsidizing your choice.

I’m all for rail. Pay for it yourself.

All of it.

PackerBronco on August 14, 2011 at 4:41 PM

Date: Thursday, November 4, 2010
Wauwatosa – Governor-Elect Scott Walker today released the following statement on high-speed rail:

“Since learning about the state’s agreement with the federal government we have been exploring all legal options to stop the train from moving forward, and we believe this is a step in the right direction. We are continuing to work with members of congress on redirecting this money to fixing our crumbing roads and bridges.”

President Obama: What about are failing infrastructure?

When Wisconsin said no to high speed rail the Obama Admin. sent the high speed rail money to other states. Obama is FOS.

CW on August 14, 2011 at 4:44 PM

Surprised? I think not.

disa on August 14, 2011 at 4:49 PM

I’ve been in that entire region of the country many times. I am jealous for your beautiful mountains, the high desert and forests in the North. Californians can still be proud about many things. And to hold on out there as a Conservative, you’re a better man than me.

hawkdriver on August 14, 2011 at 2:14 PM

Well technically I’m a New Yorker (so much better!) but I have lived here most of my life. You’re right that it’s a gorgeous place physically. That just makes the whole decline all the more tragic.
It had pretty much already gone by the wayside by the time I was born but CA used to be an amazing place to live from what I understand. Take note red states; the rot of leftism can happen anywhere.

Grayson on August 14, 2011 at 4:49 PM

Can we arrest the politicians yet?

artist on August 14, 2011 at 4:49 PM

Krugmann; What we need is more stimulus spending!

Herb on August 14, 2011 at 4:59 PM

Might be cheaper to give away plane tickets between Borden and Corcoran: Government Pays for Empty Flights to Rural Airports

slickwillie2001 on August 14, 2011 at 5:06 PM

Krugmann; What we need is more stimulus spending!

Herb on August 14, 2011 at 4:59 PM

Do you suppose the Krugs and Obama types spend their own money like they spend ours?

CW on August 14, 2011 at 5:17 PM

Del Dolemonte on August 14, 2011 at 2:29 PM

STOP.

I hate this bullshit meme.

Rail transportation is not a conspiracy to get you out of your car. It is an option that works well in certain environments and compliments auto, bus, and air travel networks.

Keep your garbage conspiracy theories to yourself.

fiatboomer on August 14, 2011 at 3:59 PM

LOL, you’re either former AMTRAK shill Mike Dukakis, or current AMTRAK shill Uncle Joe Biden.

Let me take out the garbage for you with some examples of Leftspeak on this subject.

“If we want to get people out of cars, we need to open up their options.”

Ontario’s New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath

Getting people out of cars

…it looks increasingly likely that New York will be the first U.S. city to institute a fee for driving in the city center, modeled on similar successful plans in Europe.

There are 11 — that’s right 11 — automobiles being sold in Europe and the U.K. that are rated between 74 and 88 mpg. Only one is a hybrid — the Toyota Aruis at 74 mpg. Among this group of stellar performers was the Ford Fiesta in the No. 6 spot with a not-too-shabby 76 mpg. The Kia Rio — said to be slightly larger than the Fiesta — led the pack at 88 mpg with the Smart for two running a close second. Volvo, VW, Cooper, Fiat and other manufacturers had cars that were in the top 11.

While I am not a Europhile, there is something absurd about whatever quirks in our environmental laws prevent cars in the U.S. from utilizing this technology. It seems outrageous on its face that a technology that meets strict European clean air standards — a technology that could double the mpg rating of a whole class of cars in the U.S. — is banned. Maybe, just maybe a little less ideology and a minor change in our environmental laws is warranted.

If the Democrats who have opposed realistic energy policies over the past 50 years were really interested in keeping the Workers in their cars, we would have those kinds of high MPH vehicles here.

Why don’t we? Because it’s a bullsh*t meme, of course!

LOL

Del Dolemonte on August 14, 2011 at 5:20 PM

It’s the “Big Dig” on steel wheels!

WHEEEEEEEE!

RedNewEnglander on August 14, 2011 at 5:26 PM

fiatboomer on August 14, 2011 at 3:59 PM

The Leftists who want to get people out of cars squealed like angry pigs when George Will wrote this piece back in February.

Excerpt:

So why is America’s “win the future” administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior.

Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons—to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they—unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted—are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

Time was, the progressive cry was “Workers of the world unite!” or “Power to the people!” Now it is less resonant: “All aboard!”

When this broke, as I said, the Leftists went catatonic.

But strangely enough, none of them could actually refute what Will said. All they could do was call him a “Liar” and demand that he prove his allegations.

Del Dolemonte on August 14, 2011 at 5:27 PM

Whenever the government proposes ANYTHING, automatically multiply by the cost estimates by ten (That’s 1000% for any trolling White House staffer)) and even THEN be prepared for a cost overrun.

MaiDee on August 14, 2011 at 5:31 PM

The only thing that liberals have a total grasp on is bankruptcy. They can only destroy and never create. Their perception of reality is such that they cannot differentiate the difference between fantasy and feasibilty.

volsense on August 14, 2011 at 5:33 PM

That was one of my alltime favorite George Will columns, not least because of the apoplexy in the comments section!

Mass transit is the liberals’ Holy Grail. And I mean that lliterally, it is a legendary object that nobody has ever seen, at least not in the form the liberals dream of, and they have a religious belief in its healing powers.

Cars = freedom. Not just freedom of movement, either, but freedom of expression. People can buy a car that reflects their personality, their taste (or lack of it), their thrift, their profligacy, their love of history, their love of modernity, their favorite color – all sorts of things. Trains are One Size Fits All, just the way liberals like it.

rockmom on August 14, 2011 at 5:41 PM

And how much will will cost here in California to maintain it? I will not take my family on it. I’d rather drive.

Blue Collar Todd on August 14, 2011 at 6:09 PM

This is the big dig disaster (MA) of California. I knew this would happen since even China’s high speed rail authority has collapsed with corruption and cost overruns. If commie China can’t control the exorbitant costs of high speed rail, what chance did highly unionized democrap California to keep this even close to budget?

eaglewingz08 on August 14, 2011 at 6:24 PM

China has squandered untold amounts of wealth on stupid infrastructure projects. They’ve built entire vacant cities just to keep the construction sector going. Its the sort of illogical thinking you get with socialists.

tflst5 on August 14, 2011 at 8:29 PM

Construction of the first stretch of tracks – as much as 140 miles from south of Merced to just north of Bakersfield – is scheduled to begin by September 2012 using $3.5 billion in federal money and an estimated $2.8 billion from the sale of state bonds approved by voters.

Not only is it a train to practically nowhere, there are not supposed to be any trains actually running on it for some 10 years. They are going to build this stretch of track and the stations and leave the run vacant until more of it is completed. They haven’t figured that the scrap thieves will be in there stealing the rails and the fixtures and wiring from the stations before they even have a chance to put a train on it. I suspect the entire system will be stripped bare within 5 years.

If you are going to build rail, FINE, build sections that will actually be used.

I pointed all that out along with the LAO report at the SF Chronicle’s website in a comment in response to an article last week. The comment was immediately disappeared. It didn’t even have that blurb that says “this comment has been deleted …” it was simply erased clean as if it had never existed after about 5 minutes of life on their site.

Basically all I did in the comment was quote some of the LAO (legislative accounting office) report and linked to the report itself. Comment deleted. I tried again, deleted again.

crosspatch on August 14, 2011 at 8:47 PM

The LAO report is available here:

http://www.lao.ca.gov/reports/2011/trns/high_speed_rail/high_speed_rail_051011.aspx

See the section: “Availability of the Funding Necessary for New System Highly Uncertain”

crosspatch on August 14, 2011 at 8:50 PM

What a huge waste of all our money…

Khun Joe on August 14, 2011 at 8:56 PM

Do you suppose the Krugs and Obama types spend their own money like they spend ours?

The answer is no. They only do it when they can seal it from moral, productive people and give it to immoral, dems, the parasites among us. Obama is worse that Hitler. Krugman is not unlike Goebbles.

proconstitution on August 14, 2011 at 8:58 PM

Del Dolemonte on August 14, 2011 at 5:20 PM

And to make the point lucidly, there’s this quote;

“My job is to coerce people out of their cars.”

From Ray LaHood, Chicago-area RINO and now Obama’s Secretary of Transportation.

This would tend to explain why virtually all of the “stimulus” money spent by DOT went for HSR studies, and bike paths. Not for maintenance of the “failing transportation infrastructure”, like highways and bridges, that Obama now affects to be worried about.

The only bull excrement in this meme is the idea that Obama cares about highways. He sees them, and the automobile, as remnants of an evil past. To him, the train and the bicycle are the Future. He looks at China, and loves their “egalitarian” transportation setup.

The fact that Chinese who can afford automobiles buy them is totally lost on him. But then, reality never seems to register with this president, or his acolytes. Their socialistic, command-and-control fantasy Utopia is always so much more interesting and fulfilling for them.

When reality finally does set in, once and for all, I suspect most of them will never get over it.

clear ether

eon

eon on August 14, 2011 at 9:06 PM

WTH, build it parallel or to sub-parallel to the San Andreas Fault for long distances, and across or along as many step-over faults as possible. Then advertise it as the potentially ultimate thrill ride.

A lot of people might be willing to pay for the chance to be traveling at 150 mph when an 8.9 hits.

Yoop on August 14, 2011 at 9:08 PM

I favor government owning the rail beds just like they do the freeways. Allow private companies to compete hauling passengers and freight but the tracks are owned by the people. We already have a railroad from LA to SF but the freight company won’t upgrade the line. Passenger service is also on that line but it has to go slow and pull over for freight trains which have the right of way.

Take over the existing lines, allow the freight company to operate on them, and use something like we do for air traffic control for dispatching the trains on the route.

crosspatch on August 14, 2011 at 9:15 PM

WTH, build it parallel or to sub-parallel to the San Andreas Fault for long distances, and across or along as many step-over faults as possible. Then advertise it as the potentially ultimate thrill ride.

A lot of people might be willing to pay for the chance to be traveling at 150 mph when an 8.9 hits.

Yoop on August 14, 2011 at 9:08 PM

I can dig it! My bro-in-law and his daughter would be first in line. They hit all the new roller coasters when they are built. Call The Donald, Disney, Mall of America, whomever…this is a winner!!!!! LOL

odat on August 14, 2011 at 10:39 PM

Del Dolemonte on August 14, 2011 at 5:20 PM

The European FORD Fiesta: 65mpg (diesel) costing 13,000, less CO2 than the Prius.

The US Ford Fiesta: 30+mpg (our sexy gas)

GM Volt (40m/battery only), battery replacement 10K, cost:41,000.

I think I am going to throw up.

journeyintothewhirlwind on August 14, 2011 at 11:49 PM

Del Dolemonte on August 14, 2011 at 5:20 PM

Those high mileage non-hybrids are all diesels.

Here’s an article:
http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/08_37/b4099060491065.htm

The main reason that Ford isn’t bringing the Fiesta (which actually gets 65MPG to the US is the exchange rate between the British pound (where the engine is made) and the dollar, plus the fact that the car does NOT qualify for the Government’s alternative energy rebate.

Digging a bit into the story, we have that the car would have to compete against the Toyota Prius, which costs more before the rebate, but costs less afterward.

I suspect the other side of the coin is that diesel in California is quite a bit higher than gasoline — because of the de-sulphuring costs.

So it’s not that the cars are being prevented by the Government from being sold here, it’s that the Government has distorted this marketplace to sell Volts.

unclesmrgol on August 15, 2011 at 12:31 AM

Boy…flatboomer sure got quiet in a hurry when you guys handed him his ass.

gryphon202 on August 15, 2011 at 3:26 AM

DEMOCRATS and socialists are obsessed by a few things.

SEX and race of course. Gay sex. Naturally.

Add to that HIGH SPEED TRAINS to nowhere.

They REALLY are obsessed with them. Trains. High speed.

A typical leftist fantasy is to have sex on a high speed train, whilst being looked after by a black porter.

Jack Bauer on August 15, 2011 at 5:39 AM

Borden and Corcoran.

Doesn’t make sense unless one can assume that there is a percentage of land/property owned by politicians and/or the contracted construction company between these two towns which just coincidentally are also located along the proposed rail bed.

scituate_tgr on August 15, 2011 at 7:46 AM

The European FORD Fiesta: 65mpg (diesel) costing 13,000, less CO2 than the Prius.

The US Ford Fiesta: 30+mpg (our sexy gas)

GM Volt (40m/battery only), battery replacement 10K, cost:41,000.

I think I am going to throw up.

journeyintothewhirlwind on August 14, 2011 at 11:49 PM

You’d think the regime and the EPA were dead-set on keeping us dependent on foreign oil.

SKYFOX on August 15, 2011 at 7:52 AM

Rail uses more fuel per passenger mile than air travel. The ideologues claim rail is energy saving because they assume in their numbers every seat is full and every car has only one passenger.

seven on August 15, 2011 at 8:30 AM

Only in a governments estimate would construction costs go up during this period of economic woes.
Almost every single construction project you can get lower bids, than a couple of years ago.
I lived in California for 40 years, and I hardly even knew where these places were. Borden, never heard of, might as well connect Ridgecrest with Los Banos…glad I moved away.

right2bright on August 15, 2011 at 8:42 AM

Take a look at Atlanta…a similar smaller project, under protest the termination point wasn’t the stadium (which makes sense), it was a government project. No one rides that train that has a job.

right2bright on August 15, 2011 at 8:47 AM

R

ail uses more fuel per passenger mile than air travel. The ideologues claim rail is energy saving because they assume in their numbers every seat is full and every car has only one passenger.

seven on August 15, 2011 at 8:30 AM

HSR, or any passenger rail system, is only functional in relatively restricted circumstances. The main factor being passenger density.

Passenger rail works very well in areas with high population density and relatively high business commuter numbers. In other words, areas in which cities are built along European lines in restricted groundspace. England, France, the U.S. East Coast (BosWash) Corridor, and the Honshu Corridor in Japan (Tokyo/Kobe/Osaka) all fall into this category.

Modern-day American progressives, on the other hand, are ideologically committed to passenger rail everywhere, largely from an environmentalist/social engineering standpoint. The result is that they want to build their train sets in places where there is not enough ridership to pay for it, and never will be.

The now-cancelled Ohio High Speed Rail plan, the brainchild of Obama and former Democrat governor Ted Strickland, was a case in point. It would have linked Columbus, the state capital, with Cincinnati on the Ohio River and Cleveland on Lake Erie. (Note that all three cities are Democrat strongholds.) Ridership would never have come up to even minimum DOT standards for rail “break-even”, simply because most actual businesses in all three cities are operated by people who live within 40 miles of each one. And even state employees who needed to go from one to the other would be more likely to fly, if they didn’t just phone; “teleconferencing”, by the way, was also one of Strickland’s big ideas to save fuel. (Proving that even a stopped clock is right twice a day, as the old pre-digital saying goes.)

The running joke here in Ohio was that the “3C” rail system would mainly have been used by Democrat bigwigs in Columbus to squire big contributors back and forth to Reds games in Cincy and Browns games in Cleveland- while wining, dining, and schmoozing them for money.

The less amusing theory was that insiders were busy buying up right-of-way property, preparatory to selling it to the state at an inflated price- a gag straight out of the 1870s, but don’t bet it wouldn’t have happened. The threats of legal action from the Obama crowd when incoming Republican governor John Kasich cancelled the project and tried to return the Federal funds made some people wonder just who got left holding the bag- and lots of otherwise low-dollar/acre land- as a result of such machinations being torpedoed by Kasich’s action.

Passenger rail is a transport method which only works with enough bodies in enough seats to make it pay. Which means that in most of the United States, the geography will turn it into a money loser every time.

The fact that progressives either do not understand this, or are determined to ignore it in pursuit of their Utopian fantasies, does not speak well of their actual knowledge. Or, for that matter, their common sense. If any.

clear ether

eon

eon on August 15, 2011 at 9:50 AM

This is the reason Harry Reid no longer believes in budgets. Why bother?

Counting costs is so passe.

rwenger43 on August 15, 2011 at 12:07 PM

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