(image courtesy California High-Speed Rail Commission)
Even on its best day, California’s high-speed rail project was always going to struggle to deliver on its grandiose promises – a best day that was unfortunately Nov. 4, 2008.
That was the day California voters approved a modest and fantastical version of what the project would become and it’s been downhill ever since. Votes approved Proposition 1A, which provided $9.95 billion in bond funding for the bullet-train project.
It’s possible that the best day will be eventually supplanted by a ribbon-cutting ceremony if and when the project is completed, though it seems more likely than not that that day will never come.
The project is woefully behind schedule and massively over budget and there’s no end in sight. It would honestly make more sense if the mountain of problems facing the project were due to some kind of Mafia-run, money-laundering scheme like those in the movies.
But of course there is no godfather pulling the strings. The blame falls squarely on California’s central planners, who planned a rail line based on their environmental priorities rather than on the real-world needs of California travelers.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When High-Speed Rail was sold to voters in 2008, it was supposed to cost $33 billion and be completed – San Francisco to Los Angeles – by 2030. But today the hope is that a line connecting the smaller cities of Merced and Bakersfield will be operational by 2029 for the exorbitant cost of $105 billion. And if history is any guide, the cost overruns and delays won’t stop there.
Voters were told they would be getting a state-of-the-art train that would reduce the state’s dependence on foreign oil, reduce traffic congestion, give commuters a “safe, convenient, affordable and reliable alternative to driving and high gas prices,” reduce air pollution and fight climate change, among other things. It would be just like Europe or Japan.
Supporters even made the “urbanism” case – in that an intercity rail system would encourage urban development, as residents would become less car dependent because they would have an easy way to get out of town for the weekend.
But simply put, none of those goals will be accomplished if the thing never gets built, which more and more critics are starting to question. As The New York Times recently reported, the project’s legion of doubters has grown to include former chairs of the rail authority.
“I realized the system didn’t work,” said Michael Tennenbaum, the authority’s first chair. “I don’t know how they can build it now.” Former rail authority chairman Quentin Kopp, often viewed as the father of California high-speed rail because of his enabling legislation as senator, turned against the current set up: “I don’t think it is an existing project. It is a loser.”
It initially seemed as though Gov. Gavin Newsom was a doubter as well when in his 2019 State of the State Address he said: “Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A. I wish there were.”
After facing criticism, Newsom immediately began walking back his comments and has since pushed forward with a portion of the line that will connect Merced to Bakersfield and committed billions of dollars to that alignment. The only thing harder to kill than a government agency is a government infrastructure project.
Why Merced to Bakersfield? Critics say that route would get little to no usage, which the state tried addressing by noting the population of the region. “The 171-mile line from Merced to Fresno to Bakersfield connects the three largest cities in California’s Central Valley, a region of about 6 million people, including three major California universities,” according to the state.
Though it made the movie “Field of Dreams” possible, the phrase “If you build it, they will come” is probably not enough to make this line worthwhile. Just because people live in these areas does not mean that there is sufficient demand to justify this portion as a standalone line. The impetus is no doubt the flat valley landscape, which is less costly to traverse than the mountain ranges to the Los Angeles basin or the Bay Area.
Even if there were great reasons for residents to use this line regularly, the cost is prohibitive. The state estimates it would cost something like $70 one way to go from Merced to Bakersfield, with an additional $15 per day for parking. Driving two hours on Highway 99 is both cheaper and easier.
As reported by The New York Times, political compromises took the train as a speedy route from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and turned it into a commuter train. It would, among other things, share tracks with slow-moving commuter trains south of San Francisco.
It might also create more Silicon Valley bedroom communities by connecting the Central Valley to the Bay Area, but even if it’s built that probably won’t make economic sense. Setting aside that the tech industry has been revolutionized by the telework revolution brought on by COVID, the fares of this commute are probably prohibitively expensive.
Let’s just say that a Silicon Valley worker in San Jose is looking for more affordable housing to complement their relatively high-paying job, though not high enough to live comfortably locally, and they are looking for somewhere close enough to make daily or at least regular commuting realistic, but not so close that driving is simply the easier path.
Since Gilroy is still somewhat expensive and close enough to drive, that means such a worker would be looking to live somewhere like Merced, Modesto or Madera. Going back to the fare estimates, it looks like a daily round trip is around $120, or $1,200 a month, or $15,000 a year.
That’s certainly a value when considering the average home prices of Madera compared to Silicon Valley – but how many tech workers want to live in Madera?
Perhaps home values and the connectivity of high-speed rail would make these Central Valley communities more desirable, but that’s based on a lot of assumptions. What is more likely is that only a portion of the total project ever gets built and taxpayers will be increasingly called upon to bail it out.
Absurdly, state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, recently tweeted that recent problems with Southwest Airlines, which offers frequent flights up and down the state, showcases the need for rail. But that’s a nonsensical argument at this point given that few of us are likely to be alive upon the line’s final completion, if it ever gets finished.
Economist F.A. Hayek once wrote that, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” High-speed rail’s central planners are proving him right.
Matt Fleming is an opinion columnist for The Orange County Register.