It costs more than he predicted and it will do less good, but Governor Jerry Brown doesn’t care. California will build a high speed rail line or bust.Bust of course is more likely; California is a dysfunctional state whose grim long term prospects continue to deteriorate. It cannot now pay for its pensions, its prisons, its universities or its schools. But making grandiose investments in projects unlikely to pay off?No problem, apparently, if the unions and greens are on board.New projections now show that the high speed rail project will cost twice as much, serve fewer riders and take longer to complete than originally estimated. This of course is no surprise; the current figures are also almost certainly skewed. Every experience in the world with projects like this tells us that costs will go up more, estimates of ridership will continue to fall, and the project will continue to miss deadlines as fast as new ones are announced.Coming on the heels of new estimates that the project would cost around $100 billion (not $43 billion, as was originally predicted), the US Congress in a rare fit of financial sanity has chosen to eliminate funding for high-speed rail projects. The LA Times has the story:
President Obama asked Congress earlier this year to begin a $50-billion national high-speed rail system, but the request quickly met opposition in the Republican-controlled House. The House Appropriations Committee ignored the request for $8 billion in 2012 and instead granted zero funds. Even the Democratic Senate cut the request to just $100 million. A conference committee of the chambers agreed to zero the funding earlier this week, a decision approved by the House on Tuesday.
Despite the cut, a stubborn Gov. Brown is determined to continue the project. California has less than 15% of the $100 billion currently available.Supporters hail the project as visionary, a return to the glory days when California thought and built big: water projects, highways, the Golden Gate Bridge. And in the old days, tough times were a signal to build, not to throw in the towel. You show your faith in the future when things are dark.Via Meadia likes that kind of thinking. Growth is good and bold is good. But this plan is still bad. It isn’t a genuine growth strategy for California; it is an exercise in wishful thinking. California isn’t building a practical railroad; it is building a Magic Green Unicorn Transport System to ferry vast herds of unicorns up and down the state.In California politics these days you can’t get support for big development projects unless the greens are on board. They won’t sign up for anything that might actually work, so you have to find some magic green lipstick that will turn your pig of an infrastructure project that will employ your union friends and feed the construction lobby into a beautiful green unicorn that the environmentalists love. This calculation, not any serious view about economic development or the state’s financial picture, is driving the train.Any Democrat these days has to master the art of lip daubing: green lipstick for blue pigs. Blue collar union workers and upper middle class environmentalists and NIMBYs have to be stroked and cajoled. High speed rail is the perfect unicorn transport system. NIMBys like that it uses existing rail lines for the most part, greens love the idea and fantasize about the quiet, guilt-free travel to come, and the unions and construction companies see a gravy train where others just see green.This is one of those projects that makes perfect sense from the standpoint of internal party and political interests. It has only one flaw: it can’t pay for itself in the real world. The costs and the ridership projections don’t add up. The state will not recoup the money laid out and will likely have to subsidize both ticket prices and operating costs long into the future.But that doesn’t matter in Sacramento these days. High speed rail is a magic mirror that allows a flock of vultures feasting on the corpse of California to see themselves as eagles soaring high into the future. Enjoy the feast, friends. It’s a big corpse.