The projected cost of the California high-speed rail project has tripled from the $33 billion estimate the state used to get voter approval for the necessary bonds — borrowing, in other words — in 2008, just three short years ago. The state hasn’t even broken ground on the project, and even its former supporters are questioning the wisdom of putting a state that’s already sinking in red ink on the hook for a boondoggle that will require them to borrow almost all of the $99 billion cost and not have any service to show for it for more than a decade.
Don’t expect the Obama administration to show that kind of critical thinking, however:
The Obama administration vowed Thursday at a House committee meeting in Washington that it would not back down from its support of California’s bullet train project despite attacks from critics who alleged it is tainted by political corruption.
“We are not going to flinch on that support,” said Joseph Szabo, chief of the Federal Railroad Administration.
Szabo said that his agency had committed itself to provide $3.3 billion for a construction start next year in the Central Valley and that federal law prohibits any change of mind about where to begin building the first segment of the state’s high-speed rail system.
“The worst thing we could do is make obligations to folks and start to renege on our word,” Szabo told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Er, no. The worst thing they could do is to waste taxpayer money on a boondoggle that, at least at this point, actually has no realistic final price. The new estimate includes a risk of a 20% increase from the new $99 billion estimate based on “route options,” and that’s before any work has even been started. Once ground breaks, the project will undoubtedly face unexpected setbacks and need for new cash infusions, a pattern seen on every public works project in memory.
What will this project deliver in the end? A fixed-rail transport system that takes longer to deliver people between two points than air travel — with multiple service providers — takes now. As with all public-transport systems, taxpayers will have to heavily subsidize the service to make it price competitive with the other options of driving or flying, and unlike the tradeoff cities make in that calculus to relieve congestion, there is no public detriment that the rail system will relieve in exchange for those billions in subsidies that will have to flow into the California Choo-Choo. No one has proposed how California even plans to power the train system, since California is a net importer of electricity now. The only realistic options for generating as much power as will be needed on a reliable basis are fossil fuels and nuclear power, neither of which improves on cars or planes, at least in the eyes of Californians and Democrats supporting this project.
And don’t forget that this fixed-track system, which for passenger service is a relic of the 19th century, will necessarily sit astride and parallel one of the largest fault lines in the US — the San Andreas fault, where most people believe California’s next big earthquake will originate.
The worst thing that the federal government can do is to be a poor steward of public capital, and that’s exactly the choice that the Obama administration and Jerry Brown are making by continuing this embarrassment of a boondoggle.