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Published on: January 15, 2012
California Rail Fail: Captain Brown and the Great White Train

California’s bullet train is going off the rails, and the overseers are running for cover. The WSJ reports that Roelof van Ark, the chief executive, and Thomas Umberg, the chairman of the High Speed Rail Authority, announced they will step down from their posts as the odds against the project grow longer. The highly indebted, […]

California’s bullet train is going off the rails, and the overseers are running for cover. The WSJ reports that Roelof van Ark, the chief executive, and Thomas Umberg, the chairman of the High Speed Rail Authority, announced they will step down from their posts as the odds against the project grow longer.

The highly indebted, cash strapped state has commitments of $3.3 billion of federal money in hand against the roughly $100 billion that the train is now estimated to cost (the price will certainly go even higher).  Voters authorized almost $10 billion in bonds in a referendum, but that was when the train looked much cheaper and more federal funding was available. Since then the cost estimates more than doubled to $99 billion, ridership estimates have been slashed indicating that the completed system will require unending subsidies, and Congress has stopped voting new funds for high speed rail.

To make matters even worse, the federal funds that are available can only be used for a “spur” out into the Central Valley, rather than the main line from Los Angeles to San Francisco.  The “spur” is the least needed, least wanted and least useful part of the system and will never generate significant traffic.  There are, in other words, federal funds to help with the part of the system that nobody really wants, and the heavily indebted state must find at least $70 billion to fund the rest.

California’s proposed high speed rail system

One recent poll now shows that 53 percent of voters now want the bond sales stopped, and only 33 percent want the state to go ahead.  In a new referendum, 59 percent would vote to reverse the decision that authorized the state to assume new debt for the rail system. Many voters have been sobered by the state’s worsening fiscal position and the looming tradeoffs between painful service cuts and higher taxes; others feel that rail backers provided misleading information about the costs of the system and want a revote now that they know something closer to the truth.  As the director of the well respected Field polling organization told Reuters explaining these results, “The matter is somewhat different now than it was when it was billed to them.”

In order to get the federal funds for the Bakersfield spur, the legislature has to commit to use the bond authority granted in the referendum, and given the growing public unease about the project, what once looked like a formality threatens to become a serious obstacle.  Both the public and the legislature were taken aback when the review board appointed by the (Democratic Party-controlled) legislature to advise lawmakers about whether to issue the project advised against going ahead. Now legislators will have to defy both their constituents and their own chosen experts to press ahead.

The demand to kill the project is growing.  The San Jose Mercury says that the cry to drop the project is at “fever pitch.” According to Business Week, at least one major rating agency is losing faith:

Fitch Ratings analysts yesterday wrote that the project “is likely to struggle under the weight of state cuts and a voting public that will continue to feel the effects of the economic downturn.”

(Fitch thinks high speed rail has a long term future, partly due to concerns about carbon emissions, but also notes that these systems will need long term subsidies.)  Lawsuits are springing up from NIMBYs and others who do not want the high speed rail — and California courts historically have been very sympathetic to such cases. The managing authority doesn’t just have two vacancies at the top; only about half of its jobs have been filled.  Many think that the stench of death now hanging over the project means that top engineers and executives will shun what looks like a ride to nowhere.  More ominously still, some key Democratic legislators who have backed the plan in the past are looking for the exists.  From the Silicon Valley based Mercury News.com:

Republicans are uniting in opposition, and three key Democratic state senators — Joe Simitian, of Palo Alto, chairman of the budget subcommittee overseeing transportation; Alan Lowenthal, of Long Beach, chairman of the Select Committee on High-Speed Rail; and Mark DeSaulnier, of Concord, chairman of the transportation committee — have started applying the brakes.

The three have supported high-speed rail and voted to put it before the electorate in 2008. But in separate interviews last week, they indicated that the current plan could not win their vote.

They voiced concerns about plans to start in the Central Valley with a 130-mile link that will not attract enough riders and could become California’s version of the Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere.”

“This is an albatross potentially,” Lowenthal said.

Yet none of this deters the system’s chief backer.  Governor Brown is doubling down on the project even as longtime supporters jump ship.  According to the LA Times, powerful interests are pushing him forward.

Brown is under pressure from unions, engineering firms, big-city mayors and the Obama administration to stabilize and press ahead on a nearly $100-billion project that would be the biggest in California’s lofty history of extraordinary public works gambles. With so much at stake, Brown is putting his own people in charge, although their ability to quickly reverse the damage of a wave of negative outside reviews of the project remains unclear.

Backers remain.  The unions, of course, can see only good things in a twenty-plus year construction project that keeps going over budget. Parsons Brinkerhoff is a New York based engineering firm which helped bankroll the referendum campaign that persuaded voters (briefly, until they got some honest numbers to work with) to back the project.  As a lead contractor, it is still on the case, making plans and, one supposes, charging fees. Presumably it is looking for a generous return on the political money it has spent in the Golden State. Investment banks who expect to make the usual fees from floating the bonds are also chomping at the bit.

California Governor Jerry Brown

Governor Brown sees the project as a return to California’s glory days. When his father was governor and even farther back in the past, Californians dared to dream and to build. Whether it was the Golden Gate Bridge, massive water and irrigation projects, or the Los Angeles freeway system, California was a state that got the big jobs done. Brown wants the blue model back and he’s assembled the old alliance to make it happen: the unions, the mayors, the investment banks and the construction companies. He wants the dream back and he wants to do and to build — and it’s an instinct that Via Meadia admires.

From the time of the Erie Canal to the land grant college program to President Eisenhower’s decision to build the interstate highway system to the Apollo moon landing, bold initiatives by state and national leaders have helped build the infrastructure and the institutions that promoted economic growth.  Governor Brown is right to see that a state like California needs to dream and to build.

So far, so good.  But good isn’t enough when you need to be great.  Governor Brown isn’t like the visionaries who persuaded New Yorkers to build the Erie Canal after the War of 1812. (By linking the Great Lakes to the Hudson River by water, the Canal made New York City the prime port for all the output of the newly settled Middle West.) He is more like somebody who wants to keep digging canals even as railroads appear.  He is clinging to the old rather than dreaming of the new.

Brown’s vision is backward looking and preservationist rather than futuristic. The high speed rail project aims to preserve Blue California rather than to lay the foundations of a 21st century, cutting-edge state.  The interests behind it are protecting existing turf rather than pioneering something new.  The unions and the big city mayors want to preserve or even revive the political economy and urban geography of the mid 20th century.  They want a California of strong urban cores rather than exurban sprawl, and they want to return to a large unionized labor force guaranteed lifetime employment, and they want the state government to supply long term funding to make it all work.  They want new canals in the age of rail.

But the stuff that used to work doesn’t work anymore.  Between the unions, the legal system and the various regulations and requirements that have built up over the years, the big projects cost much more than they used to.  Because California’s economy is so heavily bogged down by excessive regulation, litigiousness and a culture of benefits and entitlements, growth is too sluggish to support huge new expenditures. And high speed rail is of all forms of mass transit the one most poorly suited to the decentralized, exurban, car-based society Californians continue to build.

The blue social model can’t produce great results anymore.  If you want to think big, you can no longer think blue.  This is Governor Brown’s problem in a nutshell.  The political coalition that backs him cannot produce coherent and workable plans anymore. The greens, the unions, the planning bureaucrats, the mayors and so forth each bring so many requirements to the table that the only designs that make them all happy are so cumbersome and expensive that they cannot be built. The political imagination of the blue coalition can no longer visualize the future: it can only project its nostalgia ahead.

California, like the country as a whole, is desperate for new ideas and a new vision. Governor Brown is completely correct that the state cannot passively drift into the new century but neither he nor the coalition behind him has any idea how to get California moving again.

show comments
  • Randy

    Interesting contrast with Keystone XL, ain’t it?

  • Anthony

    “Brown wants the blue model back and he’s assembled the old alliance to make it happen: the unions, the mayors, the investments banks and the construction companies.” WRM, given not only California’s economy but also long term bond rates and return of risk, Rail Project remains unfeasible (financially uncertain) presently nostalgia or not.

  • gooch mango

    One quick point: The nostalgia is for the 1930s, not the 1950s. 1950s nostalgia would be better, as it would entail building airports and highways… projects which would likely have a positive ROI (a characteristic HSR cannot claim as its own).

  • bob sykes

    Fitch Ratings does not understand that high-speed trains consume more fuel and emit more carbon dioxide per passenger mile than passenger cars. A rational environmentalist (ha, ha) would oppose high speed trains.

    Go to Antiplanner for numerous studies and details:

    http://ti.org/antiplanner/

  • Mike M.

    I am a big fan of infrastructure and development, but the thing about infrastructure is that it is subject to the law of diminishing returns.

    Even a big country like ours only needs a finite number of highways, rail lines, airports, and Golden Gate Bridges before the projects start to not make much sense any longer. That doesn’t really say anything about us as a country, it’s just simple laws of economics and plain old common sense.

  • stephen b

    You say: “Voters authorized almost $10 billion in bonds in a referendum, but that was when the train looked much cheaper and more federal funding was available.”
    CA voters that approved those bonds in 2008 referendum were all aboard the hopium express. They believed every green fantasy they heard, plus, since conservatives thought it might not be a good idea, well then, everyone knows conservatives are not just wrong but evil, so we need to approve those bonds! [Darn] the bullet train, full speed ahead!

  • Kolya

    The political imagination of the blue coalition can no longer visualize the future: It can only bankrupt us in the present.

  • Andrew Allison

    The problem, here California and in Washington D.C., it that our elected reprehensatives represent only their own self-interest.
    It’s my belief that only term limits can solve this problem: once an office becomes a career, it’s just a matter of time before keeping it becomes the chief priority. The fastest way to get there might be the disqualification for re-election of any representative presiding over a budget deficit. Is it so hard to grasp the fact that our debt must eventually be repaid, by surplus, default or devaluation, and borrowing more is not a solution?
    As Dickens had Mr Macawber say:”Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

  • Retail Lawyer

    I was firmly against this project for the usual reasons, but I am considering changing my mind. I think that the spur portion of the line, when either built or partially built, will make a fantastic museum and showcase for the folly of our age. It will also highlight the economic disaster that is the Central Valley of California, and will serve as a fabulous location for the Obama Presidential Library. We are pretty much utterly hopeless here in California, so what the heck, let’s just go for it!

  • WigWag

    Finally, at long last Professor Mead has stumbled into a reasonable critique of high speed trains; he makes two excellent points. Why invest in moving people faster when the Internet makes it far less important to move at all? We can now accomplish more sitting at home in front of our I-Pads then we used to accomplish traveling thousands of miles per year. In light of this and in light of the fact that fast transportation (airplanes) already exist, is this really the time to invest in trains that move fast?

    Wouldn’t it be smarter to invest in electrical transmission, energy pipelines like Keystone, more funds to clean up toxic sites, biomedical research through NIH, scientific research through NSF and NASA and the next generation of the Internet? How about investing in government demonstration projects to break the power of American colleges and universities that are impoverishing the middle class through high tuition rates? How about using the money for high speed trains to incentivize the medical-pharmaceutical complex to move towards electronic medical records and to break the power of companies that publish medical journals so that new medical discoveries can be accessed instantaneously by everyone?

    Professor Mead’s second point is equally valid. When the Erie Canal was built and even during the infrastructure building boom that took place during the Presidencies of Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, the United States economy as a whole focused less on consumption and more on investments of all types than it does now. In the past we could afford infrastructure projects that were massive because we were hoarding rather than squandering our seed corn. There is simply no question that the post World War II model (that Mead foolishly and deceptively labels the “blue state model”) has emphasized consumption at every level. In light of this is it any wonder that a new and relatively poor country could afford the Erie Canal while California (one of the richest democracies in the world) can’t afford high speed trains?

  • Kenny

    When this era of American history is written, future historians will marvel as the stupidity of the American public to tolerate, never mind elect to high public office, fools like Gov. MoonBeam and his kooky ilk.

    And that ‘ilk’ includes the man currently in the Oval Office.

  • RedWell

    WigWag raises an important point: WRM, this piece begs the question of what major project SHOULD California pursue. As Mike M. points out, at some point, any modern state reaches a saturation point regarding infrastructure development, but, I would add, any dynamic society also needs some big objective to pursue in order to work towards and facilitate future development. If you’ve got a better idea–one that can garner a political coalition to balance the “blue state” interests–for California’s ambitions, what is it?

  • John Burke

    Here’s my question: would the “high-speed bullet train” really go all that fast?

    The California High-Speed Rail Authority claims that its “bullet train” would travel the nearly 400 miles from LA to San Francisco “at speeds up to 220 mph in under two hours and 20 minutes.”

    I say, bunk!

    To be sure, such a train under ideal conditions can achieve a speed as high as 220 mph, but as planned, the LA-Frisco run would make 1o station stops before its terminus (without which it would have few passengers), an average of one stop in less than every 40 miles. Even if you allow only five minutes stopped in each station (and assume it adheres religiously to its
    schedule, that leaves 110 minutes to traverse 400 miles — which means it would have to average darn close to 200 mph while in motion.

    Ain’t gonna happen. Not by a long shot. Not in this lifetime. I’d be surprised if the thing were to be run at top speeds of 150 mph for some of the longer, straighter lengths of track, with average speeds hovering around 100 mph or so. And that’s when the weather is clear (and before the first god-awful accident).

    If they ever built the thing, my guess is that its real
    world time for the trip would be well over four hours. Considering that you can make the trip in your own car in six hours, door to door, and no more than four by air, counting to and from airports, who would take this train!

  • Kris

    Though their choo-choo’s jumped the track, they’d give our lives to bring it back.

  • Mark Michael

    Re: What next major project should California pursue Question

    Does the government HAVE to lead the pursuit of a major new project? Why not leave it to the private sector, say Silicon Valley, to just invent cool new products and services?

    Seems like government-centric thinking is innate in most of us. I do it, too. If the government isn’t doing something, then nothing is getting done.

    Yeah, infrastructure projects in America have been done or led by the government. But as other commenters noted, do we really need more infrastructure right now? Maybe we can take a hiatus for awhile.

    Some states, such as Indiana and Illinois, have turned over some highways to private companies to manage. I-80 in Indiana is one if I recall correctly. Indianapolis was outsourcing city functions to private contractors. Actually, allowing them to compete with city workers on a job-by-job basis. This was under Mayor Stephen Goldsmith some years ago. (Don’t know if that has continued after his tenure ended.)

    Actually, just cleaning up the messes caused by profligate government is more than enough for current government officials, such as Gov. Brown in CA, to do for the next decade or three – or until his term runs out. Let’s see: maybe promote competition in CA’s K-12 school system. Maybe get the civil service pay under control. I hear the prison guards are paid a little bit too lavishly. What’s the litigation environment in CA? Does it need tort reform?

  • Gary Hemminger

    The problem ultimately isn’t with Brown. The problem is that the electorate keeps electing people like Brown. How can Brown do anything but what the people want him to do, regardless how stupid it is?

    As a Californian, I have seen my state completely marginalized by an electorate that always keeps electing these Blue Model types. It really isn’t the Democratic leaderships fault. They do what the electorate wants them to do. The question is when will it fall so completely apart that change will happen. In my opinion the answer is never.

  • People Not Trains

    Regarding HSR, Professor Ed Glaeser of Harvard’s Economics Department wrote a series of compelling articles in the NYT’s Economix blog a few years ago. In it, he arrived at the conclusions that HSR:

    1) would (at least in the Dallas-Houston corridor he looked at) have capital costs that are 6 times greater than the benefits as he quantifies them:

    http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/04/running-the-numbers-on-high-speed-trains/

    2) yield minimal environmental benefits:

    http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/12/how-big-are-the-environmental-benefits-of-high-speed-rail/

    Disclaimer: My sanction of Glaeser’s articles is in no way meant to represent a positive assessment of the NYT overall.

    My sense is that HSR is not going to get off the ground in CA, and that’s a good thing, given the cost-benefit analysis … and the utter absurdity of starting (and probably ending) with the Bakersfield “spur.” When only one of France’s HSR routes can break even — and that in a country that is not only culturally more eager to embrace HSR but, more importantly, has much greater population density and major cities located apart from one another at distances amenable to HSR — HSR seems like it would be a massive waste in the US.

    As for what can fix CA’s economic woes … yikes. This is a place that has regulated and legislated itself into looming economic irrelevance.

    Honestly, the best thing CA can do for itself is to begin enforcing the immigration laws the federal government refuses to enforce (see the recent Syracuse University study showing that the Obama administration has exaggerated its enforcement-related deportations by a factor of 24).

    In addition to its regulatory environment and general hostility to business, the unfortunate 800-lb. gorilla in the room (in the state?) is CA’s demographic situation. In today’s CA, Hispanics (66% of them of Mexican descent, many descended from the 10% of CA’s population that illegal immigrants constitute) have now reached a full 50% of CA’s public school students. That group has a 57% high school graduation rate, compared to 55% for black students, 77% for white students and 80% for Asian students (according to the NGO the Alliance for Excellent Education). Past high school, CA Hispanics have a 10% college graduation rate.

    Looking at those numbers for CA’s largest demographic group, as a business owner, I would be highly reluctant to open a facility in CA that requires the hiring of a large number of skilled employees. For better or worse, the US economy is what it is and US businesses and workers are what they are in largest part because we have an educated populace capable of high productivity. The Mexican, Guatemalan and Salvadoran economies are what they are largely because of the quality and education of their workers. And if CA looks more like the latter than the former, I would steer clear of looking to hire workers there.

    Of course, we can respond by encouraging greater academic achievement among CA Hispanic students (although I don’t know why we wouldn’t be encouraging CA students of *all races* to aim higher in their studies!), and I’m sure many would want to encourage higher college matriculation, primarily through community colleges — though after reading Via Meadia’s compelling posts on the diminishing returns of higher education in the age of the higher ed bubble, that seems to be a dubious path to take.

    At the end of the day, trying to turn CA students and young adults who either have come themselves into the US (often illegally) from a society that places little value in education or whose parents came in such a manner from such a society will take time and money. No matter how successful any Head Start program or increased community college funding may be (and they have a less-than-inspiring track record after decades of attempts), time is still going to be required.

    Meanwhile, if CA were to take immigration law seriously, as the federal government does not, and try to discourage illegal immigration while welcoming legal immigrants (who are, by and large, educated and skilled, especially if they are not immigrating to be reunited with family members), the state could begin to immediately improve the education, skill and productivity of its workers and residents — providing a vitally important boost to its economy.

    Unfortunately, CA has instead passed measure after measure to *encourage* illegal immigration. As a result, a large percentage of its population (especially at the youngest levels) is now rooted perhaps as strongly in cultures that, unfortunately, do not value education as the US traditionally has.

    Today, CA has gone from having a school system that leads the nation to one that — despite having the nation’s highest-paid teachers — bests only Mississippi nationally in multiple metrics. California has the second-highest percentage of adults without a high school education in the country (72% of CA adults without a high school diploma are illegal immigrants). There is a huge body of literature about the decline and fall of CA; seeing one of our most beautiful, naturally rich, iconic states — a place that created much of the 20th century — broken in such a way is painful for any American.

    For better or worse, this is true to a lesser degree for the rest of the US as well. There are millions of inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs across the world who are waiting patiently, legally, in line to enter this country — or aren’t even in that line because they know that to be there is to wait in vain.

    Places like Canada and Australia have merit- and skills-based immigration points systems to ensure they attract and accept the foreigners (and there are many of them) who will improve their economy and their future.

    The United States, meanwhile, is perpetrating the greatest Missed Opportunity in world history by incentivizing the illegal, unskilled, uneducated immigration that has brought large numbers of dishwashers and landscapers to every city in the country while remaining criminally negligent toward the skilled, educated and legal immigrants around the world. To take a higher ed analogy, we have the applicant demand of Harvard but the admission standards of a community college (except for skilled immigrants who, ironically, have to jump over numerous hurdles to gain a visa).

    We have a chance to dramatically benefit from human capital inflows. Instead, we are keeping out the contributors and letting in (via lack of enforcement of the law) people less educated and skilled than almost any American. Doing so is only going to eventually chase the productive and skilled out of this country and into the Canadas and Australias of the world.

    No HSR will fix CA’s — or America’s — woes, but taking a page out of Australia or Canada’s immigration playbook and reorienting our future human capital around the people from around the world who are most likely to benefit the interests of current US citizens and help *improve* education levels, per capita income (and thus living standards) is much more likely to help us get back on track than any bullet train.

  • Toni

    ‘ “The matter is somewhat different now than it was when it was billed to them.” ‘

    This statement refers to how the public feels now vs. when it voted on bonds for high-speed rail. But doesn’t the quote capture beautifully the way new laws and programs are portrayed by their creators, and how aghast the rest of us are once we’ve gotten a good look at the new law and programs? Including getting a good grasp of who’s really going to pay for them.

    The creators — the legislators and the program directors — rarely pay. Usually not even at the ballot box. That’s what makes this situation news. Somebody actually got booted!

    Naturally, Gov. Brown has no intention of accepting a kick in the pants, not from the masses. He’ll keep insisting that their Betters — i.e., Gov. Brown, his political allies, and those who receive the public’s payments — do the thinking for the masses. And the masses, darn them, ought to be grateful!

    Perhaps ego is an under-appreciated factor here. So to speak. As they say, politics is show business for ugly folks.

  • John Barker

    I have been reading for some time about the possibility of large earthquake in the SF Bay Area. Perhaps, California should reserve some of its bonding capacity for this eventuality or will the rest of be on the hook for the whole cost of rebuilding what has been predicted by reliable science.

  • Otiose8

    If Gov Brown wants to undertake a big project that makes sense, let him complete the extension of the 710 through to the 134/210 highway.

    This challenge has remained undone for decades. That the powers that be here cannot get this little tiny highway link completed captures their inability to do the sensible and obvious.

  • Luke Lea

    re: new infrastructure

    More than a few Americans would like to see small towns in the countryside in which people can work part-time, build their own houses, cultivate gardens, cook and eat at home, care for their own young children and grandparents, and continue working (part-time) for as long as they are able.

    See Gallup poll.

  • EJM

    I consider myself a rail enthusiast, but considering that the interstate highway system and government anti-trust and other regulations pushed American railroads into insolvency after WWII, and considering that Amtrak has never made a profit in the most densely populated northeast corridor best suited to high speed rail, the government is the problem and this CA project is a guaranteed boondoggle.

    What we should be doing is leapfrogging over traditional high speed rail which are now like the canals of the 19th century in Prof. Mead’s words — to exciting new technologies like MagLev. But these technologies will be best developed by private ‘greedy’ capitalists, who know perfectly well what would be needed for a viable sustainable competitor to the airplane and the automobile. The government’s role is to clear the right of way and cut through the bureaucratic and legal tangle government itself has created. Do that and you will see hundreds of projects blossom in the 21st century.

    Keep the blue state model of unions, regulations and government choking entrepreneurship, and watch CA continue to go backwards, leading the rest of the US from behind to further decline.

  • Richard Post

    As long as unions, regulation, and extreme litigiousness reign, ALL infrastructure projects will seem too expensive. The argument that it “costs too much in comparison to benefits” is only a reflection of the deeper problem that almost everything made in the USA now costs too much.

  • valwayne

    High Speed rail is just another massive, wastful, corrupt Government boondoggle that Obama and the extreme left have been trying to force on the nation to payoff the unions and other left wing special interests at the cost of hundreds of billions of borrowed taxpayer dollars. Gov Scott of Florida and other Governors who have refused to participate in this corruption now look absolutely brilliant. California, controlled by the extreme left wing continues to push to waste tens of billions to payoff the extreme left wing interests. Its clear to everybody that Obama’s high speed rail boondoggle will waste hundreds of billions of dollars and never pay for itself. It will waste even more after its built than it does building it. Tens of billions with this, and other insanity like Solyndra, have already been flushed down the toilet. The arrogant Elite left in California is destroying the richest state in the nation with absolute insanity. If you live in CA and own a business or work for a living get out while you can! There is no hope while the extreme left wing controls the state.

  • MDC

    Just left California, so this becomes (somewhat) more academic to me…

    But what to build (if, as pointed out, “California” needs to build anything)? How about a robust, modern electrical grid? Has EVERYBODY forgotten why Gray Davis got the boot? The production, transmission, and distribution of electricity is what keeps the (literally and tautologically) lights on and the wheels turning. Big solar storms predicted… how well will the inner cities handle a few days/weeks without power?

    Good luck, California (and everywhere else)… you’re going to need it!

  • Lyle Lanley

    Lyle Lanley: Y’know, a town with money is like a mule with a spinning wheel. No one knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it!
    (audience laughs)

    Homer: Heh heh! Mule.

    Lyle Lanley: The name’s Lanley. Lyle Lanley. And I come before you good people tonight with an idea. Probably the greatest… Aw, it’s not for you. It’s more of an Oregon idea.

    Jerry Brown: Now wait just a minute! We’re twice as smart as the people of Oregon! Just tell us your idea and we’ll vote for it!

    Lyle Lanley: All right, I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll show you my idea! I give you the California high speed rail! (audience gasps) I’ve sold high speed rails to Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrooke, and by gum, it put them on the map!

    Lyle Lanley: Well, sir, there’s nothing on earth
    Like a genuine,
    Bona fide,
    Electrified,
    Six-car
    high-speed rail!
    What’d I say?

    Ned Flanders: high-speed rail!

    Lyle Lanley: What’s it called?

    Patty+Selma: high-speed rail!

    Lyle Lanley: That’s right! high-speed rail!

    [crowd chants “high-speed rail” softly and rhythmically]

    Miss Hoover: I hear those things are awfully loud…

    Lyle Lanley: It glides as softly as a cloud.

    Apu: Is there a chance the track could bend?

    Lyle Lanley: Not on your life, my Hindu friend.

    Barney: What about us brain-dead slobs?

    Lyle Lanley: You’ll be given cushy jobs.

    Abe: Were you sent here by the devil?

    Lyle Lanley: No, good sir, I’m on the level.

    Wiggum: The ring came off my pudding can.

    Lyle Lanley: Take my pen knife, my good man.

    I swear it’s Springfield’s only choice…
    Throw up your hands and raise your voice!

    All: high-speed rail!

    Lyle Lanley: What’s it called?

    All: high-speed rail!

    Lyle Lanley: Once again…

    All: high-speed rail!

    Marge: But Main Street’s still all cracked and broken…

    Bart: Sorry, Mom, the mob has spoken!

    All: high-speed rail!
    high-speed rail!
    high-speed rail!

    Homer: High-speed… D’oh!

  • Chad

    “Fitch thinks high speed rail has a long term future, partly due to concerns about carbon emissions, but also notes that these systems will need long term subsidies”

    You mean like roads and airports? Really? The world’s stupidest double-standard rears its ugly head again.

  • Nearsighted

    Imagine that, instead of wasting half a day getting mugged and beaten at the airport, you step out of your home in your pjs and into a well appointed van, complete with hot coffee and toilette.

    You enjoy a hearty breakfast while catching the headlines, then do a bit of meeting prep. By the time you are dropped at the door, you are ready for a hard-charging day.

    Meanwhile, the van slips over to its closest rental outlet for re-fueling and cleanup.

    As the end of your meeting nears, you send the fetch code. By the time you hit the front door, your home-on-wheels is waiting for the sleepy ride home.

    Passenger rail (and much air travel) will soon be replaced by auto-piloted (aka “salon”) cars. Google, Ford, GM, MIT and the Defense Department have already proven them in the field, in all environs. Their safety record is nearly perfect.

    Want a world-shaking vision? Build the legal framework that fairly assigns liability for traffic accidents.

    It’s the only remaining obstacle.

    btw: “are looking for the exists” should be “are looking for the exits”.

  • Randall

    Imagine a case where $3bil does not mean a thing! That is about half the total endowment of Stanford which is thought to be huge. As they say…no way to run a railroad..

  • Jim

    If I cannot have my choo-choo, then I must have my teleportation device.

  • Charles Jones

    This high-speed railroad sounds like the Rio Norte line in “Atlas Shrugged.” Especially the part about it never generating significant traffic. Where it differs is when Dagny decided to use nothing but junk on the line because the Mexican kleptocrats would eventually confiscate it. If only this line had somebody that smart.

  • Blake

    If it were up to me, I’d build some sort of high speed freeway between LA and SF.

    Contract the project out and make it a completely private venture. Gasoline stations would pay a premium to locate on the route.

    Drivers would have to take special high speed driving courses, cars would have to be certified as safe and all driving rules would be rigidly enforce. (tailgaiting, driving to slow in the left lane, etc.)

    Since I know this will never happen in CA, I probably need to move to AZ and work on a proposal for a high speed highway between Phoenix and Las Vegas.

  • L Nettles

    A little canal history.

    The Santee Canal was one of the earliest canals built in the United States. It was built to provide a direct water route between Charleston and Columbia, the new South Carolina state capital.

    In 1786, the South Carolina General Assembly charted a company to construct and maintain the inland canal linking the Cooper River near Charleston, with the Santee River. The Santee River connects to the Congaree River and the City of Columbia. Construction started in 1793 under the direction of Engineer Col. John Christian Senf. It opened in 1800.

    It was 22 mi (35 km) long. It had two double locks and eight single locks. Its width was 35 ft (10.7 m) at the water’s surface and 20 ft (6.1 m) at the bottom. Its depth was 4 ft (1.2 m).

    Due to low traffic, poor construction, and droughts, the canal was not a financial success. The construction of railroads sealed its fate. It lost its state charter in 1853. It was not used after 1865. Much of it was flooded by the construction of Lake Moultrie.[1]

    (BTW I am proud of South Carolina’s early adoption of Railroads)

  • stonedome

    thank you florida governor rick scott to reject obama stimulus funding for hi speed rail between tampa and orlando. boondoggle avoided, taxpayers spared. better move out of california before it implodes…you can always go back and visit for the scenery

  • Vinny B.

    I am completely shocked. Rail lines are bastions of economic sensibility. Just take a look at, er, well…..

  • t-bird

    This IS the greatness of Blue California! Propose something, get funding, study it, litigate it, regulate it, and then kill it. I’m not sure what we’ve built in the last fifty years- VTA light rail is just awesome- but there has been no end to the careers dealing with all the proposals.

  • Phil in Englewood

    “Since then the cost estimates more than doubled to $99 billion”

    To keep a project like this from being sold with lies, how about a requirement that any cost overruns greater than ten percent of the voted-on estimate will be taken from the wages and fees of those working on the project, and/or the agencies responsible for the overruns due to metastasized regulation. If the project then becomes economically unfeasible, funds raised and/or allocated to date are automatically returned to bondholders or the state’s general fund, and the project is cancelled.

    If there is no incentive to be realistic, there won’t be any realism.

    BTW, +1 to stonedome.

  • fox

    Anyone else notice that the proposed line wouldn’t even stop at LAX? Great urban planners they have there in CA…

  • Richard

    The Bullet Train to bankruptcy. This foolishness was the product of the real estate boom California where everyone thought they would become a millionaire by owning a middle class tract house. Now that that is over, so will this be over.

  • BooMushroom

    Thought experiment: How much would HSR cost annually if a magical genie acquired all the land and created the trains and rails and stations for free? And got all the environmental impact reports created and approved? If the day the first train ran, there was no debt except for the hiring and training of scads of union(of course!) engineers and security guards and janitors and managers and human resource managers. I bet it would still cost millions per year in subsidies. We have to pay for these good people to retire for 30-45 years after working for just twenty, after all.

  • fiftyville

    This is just plain sad. In the face of the ballooning cost estimates that are an order of magnitude greater than the original, Jerry Brown is like some pathetically senile Peter Pan fanatic who’s just been told that someone doesn’t believe in fairies.

    “You mustn’t say that! Everytime someone says that California HSR is a scam, another HSR executive resigns! I do believe in HSR! I do, I do, I DO!”

    In addition, I just heard a rumor that Jerry Brown is suing Parker Brothers to force them to change any versions of Monopoly sold in California. In the California versions, all the railroads must be high-speed, but they only run between Mediterranean and Baltic Avenues. If anyone lands on a railroad, ALL the players pay for it. And pay for it. And pay for it.

    Oh, and by law, Jerry is the only one who gets to use the battleship, and once you have over a million dollars, you automatically go to jail and socialist players are allowed to Occupy your properties.

  • Juanderful

    Jerry Brown: First public employee unions and now Hi Speed Rail. Has any human being ever done more harm to the state of California?

    If you want to get somewhere fast can’t you hop on an airplane?

  • Ben

    Anyone who believed the original estimates… Well, I can’t think of anything to say other than to call them names. Unfortunately those sort of people are out there in large numbers.

  • Gary L

    15.Mark Michael says:
    “Indianapolis was outsourcing city functions to private contractors….This was under Mayor Stephen Goldsmith some years ago. (Don’t know if that has continued after his tenure ended.)”

    Yes, the current Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard has continued along this path. One recent innovation involves parking meters. A Dallas company signed a 50-year lease with Indy to manage the downtown meters. The new meters very conveniently accept credit cards.

    http://www.wthr.com/story/14076762/indianapolis-begins-installing-new-parking-meters

  • Koblog

    Wig Wag (#10) hits the nail on the head: we need more electricity! It’s the greatest, most useful invention of all time.

    The idea that we need to cut back on our use of electricity even as we upgrade our homes from 40-Amp services to 200 or more Amp services is ridiculous.

    Built Big Power.

  • cowgirl

    California is proof positive that you can’t fix stupid.

  • http://www.jpfo.org james solbakken

    I was born at St Joseph’s Hospital, San Francisco, on January 9, 1959. Mein eyes have seen the decline of this paradise in those 53 years, and I don’t like it one bit. But the blame belongs to Californians. We did this to ourselves. We refused to believe in economics, morality, or common sense, and now we are reaping the whirlwind of destruction for our hubris. Sorry, but we deserve this. We deserve to die. And we will die if we don’t pull our heads out of our [rear] and begin to accept reality again.

    James

  • ed

    Park yourself in a rail station along the 110 freeway and count the number of passengers on each passing train. Compare that to the number of auto passengers using the freeway lanes.

    After such an exercise anyone with any sense would take the passenger estimates proferred by the HSR proponents and divide them by ten before attempting any cost-benefit analysis.

    Even NYC, with a population density many times that of metropolitan LA, can’t run a self-supporting train system.

    Its all “Red Car” nostalgia writ large.

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    @ #17:

    Many thanks for an extremely absorbing and rewarding post. And in particular for the following passage (which seems to me to be at – or close to – the heart of your argument):

    “Places like Canada and Australia have merit- and skills-based immigration points systems to ensure they attract and accept the foreigners (and there are many of them) who will improve their economy and their future. The United States, meanwhile, is perpetrating the greatest Missed Opportunity in world history by incentivizing the illegal, unskilled, uneducated immigration that has brought large numbers of dishwashers and landscapers to every city in the country while remaining criminally negligent toward the skilled, educated and legal immigrants around the world. To take a higher ed analogy, we have the applicant demand of Harvard but the admission standards of a community college (except for skilled immigrants who, ironically, have to jump over numerous hurdles to gain a visa).”

    What do you suppose is the reason(s) for that? Personally I’d welcome ANY thoughts and opinions on that subject.

  • Progressive Libertarian

    I’m not a great fan of rail transit and can’t say I understand the cost benefit tradeoff of the California HSR. I’d probably prefer the money be spent on other infrastructure. But, based on this post and most of the comments, the troglodyte right wing world will see it as a battle against the extreme left wing (formerly known as the moderate liberal center). While the actual decisions about it will likely be political sausage making as usual, the alternative will be presented as no taxes, no regulation (i.e., protect our poor “job creators” from oppressive social responsibility) and more offshore investment and commodity speculation (again freeing our “job creators”). Is there a way to have a better dialogue? If this blog and commentary is any indication, the answer is no.

  • Cary Adams

    Infrastructure can’t always be quantified.

    In the days of sailing ships, 110-years ago, L.A. built the harbor just to overcome the lack of a natural anchorage. Could they envision millions of containers bringing inexpensive, and what would be otherwise impossible to secure, goods to and from the entire world? Could William Mulholland, after bringing water south, envision 4 million people living in the largest desert oasis in the world 100-years ago when L.A. had a population of less than 250,000? Congress approved the interstate highway system 60-years ago as a defense measure but I can’t remember the last time I saw a Sherman Tank in the slow lane. It’s doubtful they could recognize the daily value of that system to us today?

    The point is “cost” isn’t the only determinant for infrastructures. Better is history and common sense.

    Thanks,
    Cary Adams,
    North Hollywood

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