Criticism justified after warning California high-speed train won’t run
California’s infamous $113 billion high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, set to be completed by 2020 at a cost of $33 billion, has only begun to cobble together on one stretch of 171 miles in the Central Valley, is not really “an existing project”, says Quentin Kopp, former president of the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA). “He’s a loser.”
Ex-president Michael Tennenbaum added: “I don’t know how they can build it now.” And California State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D – Lakewood): “There are only problems on the draft.”
All these quotes are from a highly commented article in the Sunday’s New York Times detailing the crudely politicized decision-making that has plagued the proposed high-speed rail since California voters mindlessly approved an initial $9.95 billion bond measure to revive it in November 2008.
“It is only now,” argues author Ralph Vartabedian, “that it becomes apparent how costly the political choices were. Collectively, they transformed a project that could have been built faster and more cheaply into a juggernaut so expensive that, without a major new source of funding, there’s little chance it could ever achieve its original goal of linking California’s two largest metropolitan areas in two hours and 40 minutes.”
At the risk of nitpicking an otherwise useful autopsy, there has never been, at any stage of this living monument to political irresponsibility and hubris, even a “little chance” that the SF-LA line will pass passengers between cities in just 160 minutes, let alone deliver on the entire bag of laugh-out-loud pledges that the state and federal political establishment delivered with a straight face.
“The Rail Authority claims it will achieve average speeds not achieved by any other high-speed rail system in the world,” said Reason Foundation Vice President of Policy Adrian Moore. once observed. “A trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles would take 2 hours and 40 minutes, averaging 197 mph. The TGV-Est de la France train averages 174 mph, the TGV Paris-Avignon averages 159 mph, Japan bullet train averages 159 mph, and Taiwan bullet train -bullet train averages 152 mph… They are the fastest in the market.And they can use light trains and fast, because they run on their own tracks. California will have to use heavier, slower trains because the plan is run on the same railroad tracks as freight trains, and federal safety rules require heavier passenger trains. heavy in the event of a collision.
These words, loaded with incontrovertible facts, were published in September 2008. Reason Foundation, the non-profit organization that publishes this website, has operated a public policy shop whose areas of expertise have always included transportation (including rail), as good as California write in bulk. In August 2008, the foundation released a 196-page document due diligence report eviscerating the shoddy and outrageously expensive ($58 million already by then) work of the CHSRA, and predicting many of the pitfalls they’ve been plunged into since.
“There are no real financial projections indicating that there will be enough funds to complete Phase I, let alone Phase II or any other phase,” the report concludes. “It is possible that the system is only partially built or not at all….[The] the system as envisioned in state law seems highly unlikely to be delivered under the current plan…. There is little chance that passenger or revenue projections will be met, that aggressive travel times will be met, that promised service levels will be achieved, that capital and operating costs will be contained as estimated current conditions, that sufficient funding will be found or that the system will be profitable. These circumstances are likely to represent a costly and continuing drain on the state’s fiscal resources.”
Even the crude, project-delaying political horse-trading that the Time focuses on was itself initially predictable by those who have actually studied how massive infrastructure projects are done in the United States.
“[The project] is already becoming a financial drain on local governments and transport authorities,” the foundation’s Adam Summers wrote in July 2008. “The wildly exaggerated claims of proponents of high-speed rail and the attempts by lawmakers across the state to get their hands on the pot of high-speed rail money should serve as warnings against the provision of commercial service with political means. In the private sector, businesses must satisfy consumer demands and put their own investments at risk to survive. Politicians, on the other hand, do not have to live by economic realities. They can argue no any idea that sounds good in the moment and keep tapping into the taxpayer to pay for it whether it makes sense or not.”
Yes, the Reason Foundation is a libertarian think tank, interested in limiting the size of government and using the means of the market for political gain. But the foundation’s transportation work in particular, spearheaded by the legendary Bob Pool, has long been respected across the political spectrum for her seriousness and attention to detail. And, in the case of the high-speed train fiasco, this work was not aberrant.
“The Authority’s ridership projections are significantly higher than independent forecasts developed for comparable California systems in studies conducted by the Federal Railroad Administration, the University of California Transportation Center at Berkeley, and in the recent Due Diligence Report “said Joseph Vranich of the foundation. testified to the California Senate Transportation and Housing Committee in October 2008. “The current proposal is untenable. The train will be slower than they say, carry fewer people than they claim, and cost far more than they don’t admit it.”
Vranich was actually a high-speed train enthusiast, calling him “the first time I am not in a position to approve a high-speed train project” (emphasis added). He painted a picture of a planning authority that hadn’t done even the most rudimentary of homework:
I would like to see a bullet train built, but not this mess.
High-speed rail is showing great promise in some parts of the country. But the Authority’s work is so flawed that if the current plan is implemented, it has the potential to roll back the cause of high-speed rail across the United States. The Authority didn’t learn the lessons: What caused the failure of the Texas high-speed train? What made it fail in Florida? What caused the failure of the previous project between Los Angeles and San Diego?
A common element in failures was high ridership estimates, low cost estimates, disregard for local environmental impacts, and planners’ loss of credibility. The California authority repeats all the errors as if it had never read a single page of history.
There’s a point to rehashing those old arguments beyond saying we told you. The fact is that these reality-based objections were widely known at the time. It’s just that people who otherwise pose as serious public policy thinkers have made a conscious choice to abandon rationality in favor of the illusory dream.
In 2008, my former colleagues from Los Angeles Times editorial board has produced one of the most succinct examples of magical political thinking you will ever see:
The projections of opponents of the measure, led by the libertarian Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, are much less optimistic and more convincing [than those by supporters]. If voters approve Proposition 1a, it seems close to child’s play that the California High-Speed Rail Authority will be asking for several billions more in the coming decades, and the Legislature will have to reap several million dollars in grants. operating.
And yet, we still believe that voters should give in to the measure’s beautiful promise, because it’s in their long-term interests.
Three years later, after the predicted falls, the newspaper said in an editorial that “Yes, the price has tripled and its completion date is 13 years later. But it’s still a gamble worth taking. To be taken.”
The New York Timeswhose sober reporting this week launched the latest public debate on this colossal government failure, were there editorialize in his favor in 2014. “Despite modest investments, U.S. lawmakers have failed to give high-speed rail the priority it deserves,” the paper complained, before launching into undergraduate political fallacies:
The California project to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco by high-speed train is expected to cost $68 billion. Critics argue that such services cannot survive without public subsidies, and that the United States has few dense urban areas that have made such rail services successful in places like France and Japan. But these arguments ignore the fact that most forms of public transport are subsidized in one way or another by the government; the federal government invests most of the money to build the interstate highway system. Skeptics also grossly underestimate the country’s long-term transportation needs. The Census Bureau estimates that the American population cross 400 million in 2051, and the country is become more urban, Not less. The people of California should top 50 million in 2049. This growth will put incredible pressure on the country’s highways and air traffic system.
Note the tips: reviewers waved, without hyperlink or citation, not to have benchmarked the grants that the Time itself fails to meaningfully enumerate. Zero cost-benefit comparisons of different transport systems. Might as well just growl “I HAVE A PROBLEM!” THIS SOLUTION !
We will continue to repeat this costly and heartbreaking madness until we meaningfully address the mindset that allows it. Ancient Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson identified this mental trap in 2010:
President Obama calls the high-speed rail critical “infrastructure” when it’s actually an old-fashioned “hog barrel.” The interesting question is why he retains his intellectual respectability. The answer, it seems, is willful ignorance. People prefer fashionable pretenses to unpleasant realities. They imagine public benefits that do not exist and ignore the costs that exist.
We told you. You chose not to listen. This one is on you.