This is why we don’t have a bullet train in the United States

Fresno Trench construction workers build part of the high-speed rail line that will run under CA Hwy 180 in Fresno, California on May 8, 2019
Photo: Frederic J. BROWN / AFP (Getty Images)

Fourteen years ago, California had a dream: to connect the two largest urban centers in the state via the first high-speed train, reducing travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco to two hours and forty minutes. It would cost billions and take years, but everyone agreed it was a better decision than investing money in another highway. Now, nearly a decade and a half later, construction has begun on a seemingly doomed project.

Building in California was never going to be easy among the mountains and deserts that dot Southern California, but local politics made it much harder than necessary. The New York Times has a great answer for Americans returning from a vacation in Japan or Europe and wondering where all those wonderful bullet trains are: local politics. From Time:

Now, as the nation embarks on a historic adventure, 1 trillion dollars of infrastructure constructionthe tortured effort to build the nation’s first high-speed rail system is a case study in how ambitious public works projects can become dangerously encumbered by political compromises, unrealistic cost estimates, faulty engineering and a determination to persist with projects that have become, like the crippled financial institutions of 2008, too big to fail.

A review of hundreds of pages of documents, engineering reports, meeting transcripts and interviews with dozens of key political leaders shows that the detour to the Mojave Desert was part of a series of decisions that, along with hindsight, have seriously hampered the state’s ability to deliver on its promise to create a new way to transport people in an age of climate change.

Political compromises, records show, produced difficult and expensive routes through the state’s agricultural belt. They routed the train through a geologically complex mountain pass in the Bay Area. And they dictated that construction would begin in the center of the state, in the heartland of agriculture, not at either end of the city where tens of millions of potential cyclists live.

The line, approved in 2008, was supposed to be completed by 2020 at an estimated cost of $33 billion, but that clearly did not happen. Construction of the 171-mile “Starting Line” is not expected to be completed until 2030, and cost estimates now reach $113 billion. Even 2030 is optimistic:

The railway authority said it has accelerated the pace of construction of the start-up system, but at the current rate of spending of $1.8 million a day, according to projections widely used by engineers and project managers, the train will not could not be completed in this century.

“We would make different decisions today,” said Tom Richards, a developer from the town of Fresno in the Central Valley, who now chairs the authority. He said project officials have successfully overcome the challenges and have a plan that, for the first time, will connect 85% of California residents to a fast and efficient rail system. “I think it will be a hit,” he said.

The whole project is now under threat from Republicans and Democrats, which is only to be expected given that it was the Republicans and Democrats at the grassroots level who turned this potentially game-changing piece of infrastructure for the country into a mess that could never see its completion. Read the whole story here at Time.

Jose P. Rogers