If it wasn’t before, California’s high-speed rail project is now a runaway train. Officials announced Friday that the project will cost $77.3 billion, roughly $13 billion more than the most recent forecast.
Someone with political clout needs to hit the brakes. But it seems this is a project that has neither brakes — nothing has been able to stop it, not even a series of regular setbacks — nor a throttle — because nothing can speed up construction that has fallen embarrassingly behind schedule.
It does, however, have a governor. His name is Jerry Brown. The high-speed rail has become his legacy project. And it looks more and more as if it’s going to be a legacy he’d rather not be associated with, despite his “warts and all” support for the bullet train. If he doesn’t want his name forever linked to an exhibit that produces chuckles in the Museum of Failure, he should be thinking about shutting it down and living with the sunk costs.
When voters approved Proposition 1A in 2008 to build a “bullet train” linking Northern and Southern California, they were told it would cost $33 billion. Estimates then went up from there, finally arriving at as much as $117 billion before falling to around $64 billion to $68 billion after plans were revised.
Voters were also told the rail would be ready to ride by 2030. That estimate has since been pushed back by three to four years.
Someone famous once asked who would build a tower without first sitting down, counting the costs and deciding if there is enough money to complete the project. Because anyone who laid down a foundation but was unable to finish the project would open themselves to mockery.
Of course we now know who would embark on a massive building project without first counting the costs: The politicians who said California had to have a high-speed train, convinced voters that it was necessary, and further told the taxpayers in the state would be responsible only for about $10 billion of the cost through a bond (which would eventually cost twice that thanks to debt service). Their initial estimate was so far off that one could legitimately say they weren’t even serious about it.
We were also told that the project would receive significant funding from the federal government and substantial private investment. While we received a modest sum from Washington during the Obama era, it’s clear no more money is coming any time soon. The private sector has also kept its resources rather than throw them away on a failing venture.
We’re not interested in engaging in mockery, though some surely are. We’re interested in rational decision-making by policymakers. Yes, it’s maddening to spend limited resources and have nothing to show for it. But cutting losses at roughly $3 billion now is more preferable than subsidizing an exorbitantly expensive money pit in perpetuity.