You'll never guess what CA's bullet train will cost -- or when it will finish

That may sound like a clickbaity headline, but it’s proving to be literally true. Apparently, no one can guess it, least of all the California High-Speed Rail Authority that is running the bullet-train project. Their latest projection shows total predicted cost has jumped 20% to $77 billion, with a completion date moved out four years to 2033.

For now, anyway. Be sure to check back next week in the Boondoggle Lotto!

The price of the California bullet train project jumped sharply Friday when the state rail authority announced that the cost of connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco would be $77.3 billion and could rise as high as $98.1 billion — an uptick of at least $13 billion from estimates two years ago.

The rail authority also said the earliest trains could operate on a partial system between San Francisco and Bakersfield would be 2029 — four years later than the previous projection. The full system would not begin operating until 2033.

The disclosures are contained in a 114-page business plan that was issued in draft form Friday by the rail authority before public hearings and formal submission to the Legislature in about 60 days.

The new estimates will force California’s leadership to double down on its political and financial commitments if it wants to see the system completed, against a backdrop of rising costs, years of delays, strident litigation and backlashes in communities where homes, businesses, farms and environmental preserves will have to give up land to the rail’s right-of-way.

Where did this project’s cost estimates start? In 2008, California voters approved $10 billion in bonds for the project after being told that it had “estimated costs over $33 billion.” The Mercury News pegged it at a more precise $33.6 billion. The CHRSA claim has turned out to be more accurate, in a sense; it’s how much over $33 billion it will take. Right now, CHSRA estimates that it will take $44 billion over $33 billion, which seems like something more than a rounding error. (The CHSRA website link no longer works for this document; I retrieved it from the Internet Archive Wayback Machine and uploaded it to our own server.)

What about the schedule? According to their initial plan, the train would begin operating on its initial segment “eight to 11 years” after the project got funded. We are now coming up to year ten, and there isn’t a train schedule in sight even for the Bakersfield-Fresno segment that will respond to the overwhelming commute demands between those two cities. CHSRA now estimates that they won’t connect San Francisco to the Central Valley until 2029. And despite having run this project for a decade, they’re still not sure how to connect them, either:

The ultimate goal is to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles — and eventually Sacramento and San Diego — but the immediate focus is opening track between San Francisco and the Central Valley, an agriculturally dominant, less-populated portion of inland California.

Rail proponents say linking the two areas would be an economic boon, as housing costs are exploding in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Central Valley is in need of jobs.

That portion of track is now set to be finished by 2029, also marking a four-year delay, and significant challenges remain.

One is how to cross a section of mountains — a critical segment to link Silicon Valley to the Central Valley. Right now, the agency doesn’t have a detailed plan or enough money to do that. The state is looking to build from San Francisco to the west edge of the mountains and from Bakersfield to the east edge of the mountains by 2027 before connecting the two.

The Mercury News also noted something else in yesterday’s reports:

In a departure from previous reports, the authority gave a range of project costs, up to as high as $98 billion.

And, it acknowledged many unknowns about the most risky segments of the project, including the creation of some 45 to 50 miles of tunnels that are both complicated and costly to engineer, as well uncertainty over whether the authority will secure enough funding to extend the first Central Valley segment into Southern California.

Critics of the program first raised the possibility of the $98 billion price tag years ago, which the state of California rejected as unrealistic. At the pace of a 20% jump in just two years, it will only take three years for the median cost estimate to land on the $98 billion mark. If you keep playing Boondoggle Lotto without a payoff, the prize just keeps growing larger.

Republicans in California have tried stopping this project for years, and they took the opportunity for a well-deserved I Told You So yesterday:

Several Republicans, long critical of the project and earlier reports showing the potential for skyrocketing costs, used the release of the authority’s updated business plan to blast the agency, calling the current proposal a “rump railroad.” Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, called the document a “going out of business plan.”

“The fundamental problem is they don’t have any money,” he said. “They cannot do what they are charged to do (under Prop 1A), and this document admits it.”

When the original project got approved with a $33.6 billion price tag, ticket prices were supposed to be pegged at 50% of airline prices, or about $55. The very next year, CHSRA raised its estimate to 83% of airline prices when cost estimates rose to $42 billion. Those have almost doubled since, so either CHRSA will have to double ticket prices — or more likely, the state will have to massively subsidize rail prices in order to compensate, even more than originally thought. High-speed rail will not just be a sinkhole of costs during its construction phase, but a continuing and massive drain on public funds for as long as it remains in operation.

It’s absolutely a going out of business plan … for the state of California and for its taxpayers. It’s long past time to shut this down and to stop trying to apply 19th-century fixed-track solutions to 21st-century transportation issues.

Update: Just to put a percentage on it, projected costs for this project have risen 129% from the original proposal in 2008, on which the bond referendum was based. That should be scandalous and disqualifying, but … not in California government, I’d bet.