DoT rejects CA request for flexibility on high-speed rail

Earlier this month, I wrote a column for The Week that detailed the unlearned lessons in California from their thus-far expensive flop in high-speed rail.  The Wall Street Journal reports that understanding may finally be dawning on the Golden State’s legislators, even the Democrats who have bet big on fixed-track technology.  The rejection by the Department of Transportation of a request on construction timing and location has led to the belated realization that further action may leave California taxpayers holding the bag for many billions of dollars:

At the urging of the state watchdog, the rail authority asked the feds for more flexibility about where and when to start building. Last week the Department of Transportation told them to dream on. In a letter responding to the request for more flexibility, Under Secretary for Policy Roy Kienitz ordered the authority to charge full speed ahead since “once major construction is underway and approvals to complete other sections of the line have been obtained, the private sector will have compelling reasons to invest in further construction.” Private sector seems to be the Obama Administration’s code for government.

Even some of the state’s Democrats are protesting the Administration’s mulishness. Democratic state senator Alan Lowenthal told the Los Angeles Times that “there is nothing in the letter saying the federal government would commit $17 billion to $19 billion for the project . . . If it had, we would build the Central Valley segment right now. But the state needs to be financially and fiscally responsible.”

Well, that would certainly be a novel approach for California, but a welcome one indeed.

The private sector won’t invest in high-speed rail because there isn’t any reason for consumers to choose fixed-track transport between the proposed stops, San Francisco to Los Angeles.  Several airlines already service the route and fly twice as fast between the two cities than the proposed train ride (2 hours, 40 minutes).  That means that passengers have a greater selection of outbound and return flights, as well as a number of options on airports, depending on their needs.  The high-speed rail system will be a government monopoly, with resources allocated by political need rather than passenger need, much as we’re seeing already.

Lowenthal’s right that Californians will pay through the nose for a high-speed rail construction that starts off as inferior to the airline services already in place, but that’s not the only cost that California taxpayers will carry.  They could take a lesson from Boston’s Big Dig, another gigantic boondoggle pushed by the federal government that has cost Massachusetts taxpayers billions in cost overruns — and the maintenance costs are already skyrocketing, thanks to poor construction:

State transportation workers are struggling to plug Big Dig tunnel leaks that gush as much as 1.4 million gallons of water a month, driving up repair costs in the notorious money pit known as the Central Artery by millions of dollars each year.

Despite what acting highway administrator Frank DePaola of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation called a “vigilant” ongoing effort, the persistent leaks are at least partially to blame for the crumbling fireproofing, corroded lighting and concrete falling from tunnel walls and ceilings that have plagued the Central Artery’s tunnels, according to inspection reports.

How much will the tunnel cost Massachusetts in annual maintenance?

Officials pay for the pricey upkeep out of the $458 million Central Artery trust fund created after contractors who built the $15 billion system — originally projected at less than $3 billion — settled criminal and civil charges after a Jamaica Plain woman was crushed to death by a falling ceiling panel. At the current rate of repairs, that fund could be tapped out in less than 30 years, while the tunnels were meant to last 100 years.

“The cost of maintaining this will be horrific,” said Jack Lemley, an engineer and former Big Dig consultant who “wasn’t a bit surprised” by the escalating cost of the leaks.

Lemley estimates current maintenance needs at more than $200 million, which means the fund will get tapped out much sooner than 30 years.  And this comes from a project whose initial estimated cost of $3 billion quintupled by the end of the project.  California would do well to heed the lessons of the Big Dig as well as the true lessons of its own report on the high-speed rail project and shut it down before it turns into yet another public-works sinkhole.