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Brown Still Wants Magic Unicorn Train

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.

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  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I forget where I read it, but there is supposedly only one High Speed Rail line in the world that operates in the black, it is in France and runs between Paris and Lyon. All the others are massively subsidized.

  • standfast24

    Brown lacks courage to kill this disaster in the making, but too many Dems still live in the make believe world of unlimited revenue.
    Plus, Brown (like all Dems) are owned by labor, greens and other special interests.

  • Bekah

    Don’t you think all this rhetoric is starting to get just a little overdramatic? While I must say I appreciate the loving attention that this blog tends to shower on my state, refering to California–the wealthiest and most populous state in the union, the nation’s largest center of agriculture by far, and the world’s eigth largest economy on its own–as a ‘corpse’ seems like a bit much.

    Yes, its politics are depressingly dysfunctional; yes, it has become polarized to a depth to which even Congress can only dream of sinking; and yes, it has corruption, politicking, special interest groups, and plain stupidity in abundance. California is a big state: it comes with big problems. But writing it off as a failed experiment because these problems tend to be centered on this blog’s pet peeves of powerful unions and starry-eyed greens seems a little premature. There are plenty of other states with similar problems; California’s are, yes, more dramatic (it is, after all, a dramatic state), but it is hardly alone in its economic and structural woes. And yes, these issues will likely damage its health for many years, if not decades, to come: bad policy has bad results, who would have thought? (Though luckily for the state, it is not, like Greece, its own country, and will have the federal government to fall back on in the same way that poorer states–often funded by Californian taxes–have been doing for the past two centuries.) But it is hardly going to fall off the ledge of Nevada into the Pacific in the meantime; you shouldn’t believe everything you hear about earthquakes. Forest fires are an awful natural disaster, but they are unlikely to engulf the state in a single hellish conflagration, leaving nothing behind but ash and green lipstick cases; and outside this scenario, I have trouble seeing how California is going to become the lifeless ‘corpse’ you so generously describe.

    Perhaps in the future this blog could consider taking a slightly less contemptuous and possibly even constructive approach to these problems. Perhaps you could even take into account a few of the state’s still-existing strengths: its agriculture, its entertainment industry, its tech and information industries (assuming Silicon Valley is not yet underwater), even its tourism (which, oddly–being something that makes money–has tended to be helped, rather than hurt, by the state’s business-killing environmental policies). Of course, your own past suggestions have naturally been far more practical than the Dems’ silly environmentalist dream of high-speed rail. (Does high speed rail even exist, honestly? Or does it require the clapped hands of countless small children to keep from vanishing in a puff of green fairy dust? Thanks to this article, I now have my doubts.)

    For example, the idea of splitting the state up in two is such a straightforward and quickly-attainable goal; the political will for such a small-reaching event is obviously easily gathered, will take very little effort, and in the meantime is hardly likely to generate much in the way of cultural and political dysfunction throughout the extremely simple process of secession. (As the next step, both Californias could perhaps also declare their joint secession from the North American continent, finally cut themselves free from the oppression of a landlocked border, and take to sea–maybe join the Somalians in a life of dashing and environmentally friendly piracy.)

    Or, alternately, you could offer a few suggestions as to the best way of dissuading an old man with a hard job from building an expensive train.

    Seriously, it’s not Atlantis over here. We popped a housing bubble, got stuck in a nation-wide recession, and have a crappy political system. Oh, and we’re a big fan of getting state services without paying the taxes for them: perhaps a result of our latest test-scores in mathematics. Luckily, however, my meteorologist friend says this is unlikely to cause a tidal wave anytime soon.

    At any rate, if worst comes to worse and God does descend on us in all His biblical wrath, I look forward to the extremely accurate article that is sure to follow on this blog. When you then call the state a ‘corpse,’ I solemnly promise not to utter a word of complaint (being, in all likelihood, a corpse myself at that point–but hey, let’s not get morbid here).

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