An audit of the California bullet train released the Friday before Thanksgiving should make reasonable people wonder why the project wasn’t killed long ago.
For instance, the office of State Auditor Elaine Howle says the high-speed rail has enough funding to complete its initial segments, but not enough “to connect those segments, or finish the rest of the system.” Sounds like a kid’s train set strewn all around the room, pieces of unconnected track next to an engine fallen on its side and rail car lost under the couch.
The auditor’s office also noted that “costs to date have been significantly greater than originally projected because the (California High-Speed Rail) Authority moved forward before it completed many critical tasks such as purchasing land, planning how to relocate utility systems, or obtaining agreements with external stakeholders.”
It further found “the risk of additional cost increases is high” and warned that “if the Authority does not complete construction by the federal government’s December 2022 deadline, it may need to repay $3.5 billion.”
Also falling under the auditor’s critical eye was management, which needs to be improved “to control soaring costs,” oversight, found to be “weak and inconsistent,” and operating speeds, which are likely to be slower than promised due to the system having to share existing track because it’s too costly to build a new route dedicated to only high-speed trains.
In July, the New York Times asked if the “$100 Billion Train” was “The Future of California or a Boondoggle?” The audit seems to have answered that (though it’s quite possible that the answer is both, since some are determined the state will have its bullet train no matter how costly, inefficient, and unneeded it is).
The audit assumes the project will continue, and includes a number of recommendations for the Authority. More fitting advice, though, would have been to offer a single suggestion: Shut it down before the blunder loses more money than it already has.
Such sound counsel would have given Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom the cover he needs to go back to his position of four years ago, in which he suggested he was backing off his support for the train. Unfortunately, we are stuck with his sure-to-please-no-one solution of finishing only the corridor between the San Joaquin Valley and the Bay Area. It’s the halfway measure of a politician rather than the bold statement California needs.
The audit didn’t say building a bullet train in California just doesn’t make sense. But it should have. Present (commercial flight, repaired and expanded highways) and potential (autonomous vehicles, a hyperloop system) alternatives are smarter, more advanced, and less burdensome to taxpayers. High-speed rail adds nothing. It’s a dead weight. Move on to the 21st century.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.