A(nother) funny thing happened on the way to California's bullet train paradise

Stop us if you’ve heard this before. And you have, you have. The price for the first leg of the California high-speed rail system has gone up 35% over earlier projections, adding nearly $3 billion to the cost of connecting Bakersfield to Fresno — or more accurately, points just outside both towns, neither of which are exactly destination centers in the Golden State. The reasons offer a bleak look at the sustainability of cost projections for the entire LA-San Francisco route, too:

The estimated cost of building 119 miles of bullet train track in the Central Valley has jumped to $10.6 billion, an increase of $2.8 billion from the current budget and up from about $6 billion originally.

The new calculation takes into account a number of intractable problems encountered by the state rail agency. It raises profoundly difficult questions about how the state will complete what is considered the nation’s largest infrastructure project with the existing funding sources.

The new estimate was presented Tuesday by Roy Hill, who leads the main consulting firm on the project, WSP (formerly Parson Brinckerhoff). Hill said the cost increases were mainly driven by problems including higher costs for land acquisition, issues in relocating utility systems, the need for safety barriers where the bullet trains would operate near freight lines and demands by stakeholders for the mitigation of myriad issues.

“The worst-case scenario has happened,” Hill bluntly told the rail authority’s board at its regular monthly meeting.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson demanded an audit last year, a demand that the rail authority denied. Patterson renewed his call for an independent audit to find out what happened to the money, and insisted that the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown explain “what Plan B is”:

“This is a major public works project that shows all the signs of a project in trouble,” Patterson said Tuesday of the cost increases, delays and executive departures. “The more we learn, the more troublesome the project appears.”

He said the state is “way past the politics of high-speed rail, whether you think it’s a good idea, a bad idea or you’re undecided. Since Central California is at the center of this right now, we’re the canary in the coal mine, the experiment. And the difficulties we’re experiencing will be nothing compared to going into Southern California, getting through the San Gabriel Mountains and those kinds of things.”

Patterson said he will speak at a joint legislative committee hearing on Jan. 30 to ask for an audit of the rail authority and the project. “If this weren’t high-speed rail – if it were a water treatment plant or an airport or a highway project, and saw large cost overruns, time delays, executives departing and internal fund transfers – if you step back and look at it … these are symptoms of a project that is unwinding.”

This time the project’s board is dispensing with the euphemisms, at least. One board member called the report “horrifying” yesterday, although the board tried gamely to claim that they now have a better handle on how to project costs. Californians have heard that more than once too, only to discover that it will now cost almost $11 billion just to move people between two Central Valley towns that have little demand to move back and forth that can’t be handled by Highway 99.

By the way, the board could hardly claim surprise at this estimate. Almost exactly a year earlier, the Federal Railroad Administration warned that California’s rail authority would come up about $3.6 billion short on this first leg of the bullet train. The board raised its estimate at that time by a smaller amount, and it turns out the FRA was a lot closer to the mark — and still undershot it a bit with an estimate between $9.5-$10 billion.

The solution to this debacle is pretty simple: put an end to the project before the state adds another debt crisis to its burgeoning pension crisis. The federal government could assist in that decision by cutting off all further federal funding for this Big Dig West. People who need to travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco can continue using the dozen or so airports and half-dozen airliners who routinely service the route, and the few people who really want to travel between Fresno and Merced can either use their own cars or take the Greyhound buses that run every two hours. That might embarrass Jerry Brown, but better that than further bankrupting California taxpayers for this entirely unnecessary and unrealistic boondoggle.