The California High-Cost Rail
The projected cost of the California bullet train has whipsawed up and down like share prices in a volatile market. The latest forecast adds $1.3 billion to the estimated price tag. Now at $80.3 billion, it’s a long way from its humble beginnings of $33 billion, the amount voters approved in 2008 when they had been led to believe they’d be bolting between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2020 at 220 miles per hour.
At one point, estimates for the high-speed rail soared to $117 billion. Other projections have included $64 billion, $77 billion, and $98 billion. The latest change comes a year after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his administration was going to scale back the project.
“The current project, as planned, would cost too much and take too long,” he said during his first State of the State address.
There followed some controversy about what Newsom actually meant, but whatever he meant, he was right: It’s going to cost too much and it will take too long — at least 13 years longer than first anticipated — to complete. And those facts are never going to change.
Neither will the additional $1.3 billion result in the train running on time, or at least as fast as it was promised to run, nor will it bring down fares, which will be higher than first announced.
The temptation of a Euro-style 220-mph bullet train delivering passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2:40 was too much for a majority of voters to pass up. But an independent analysis reports that the trip will likely take at least 3:50 and maybe even 4:40. That’s only an hour less than it currently takes to drive a car — which has the advantage of being able to make a direct trip, not a ride from one train station to another — between the two cities.
That same analysis, prepared by Wendell Cox, Joe Vranich, and Adrian Moore for the Reason Foundation, found in 2013 that the “about $50 a person” fares that had been released to the public would be more like $81, about 42% higher than the cost of driving a car.
When the Sacramento Bee asked a group of more than two dozen “California Influencers” in late 2018 if “the next governor continue work on the high-speed rail project he has championed — or should it be scrapped,” one response stood out.
Jim Boren, executive director of Fresno State’s Institute for Media and Public Trust, who wants to continue to build, said “it is stunning that a state that leads in so many areas has not been able to move this project ahead with more urgency. You’d think that a state that has gridlock on every one of its freeways would embrace high-speed rail.”
Those few words tell a story, and probably not one he intended to tell. The fact there’s hopeless gridlock on so many of the state’s freeways shows why it is not at all stunning the high-speed rail can’t get out of the gate. California is no longer solution-oriented, it’s ideological, and that ideology has let problems pile up over decades because it favors politics over the practical.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.