As California breaks ground this week on its new high-speed rail line, it is clear what the $68 billion dollar project amounted to: though the project will surely make unions, construction workers, and bond salesmen happy, it is little more than money the state doesn’t have for a train that its residents don’t need and probably won’t use. The Washington Post reports on the project’s continued financial troubles, and it’s not pretty:
Voters approved a $9.95 billion bond aimed at funding the initial construction of the rail project in 2008, by a slim five-point margin. The Obama administration added another $3.2 billion in federal grants, and the legislature agreed in 2014 to provide funding through cap-and-trade taxes on greenhouse gases, which will add another $250 million to $1 billion per year.That means the rail authority will have about $26 billion at best, less than half the estimated total costs. California High-Speed Rail Authority officials have said they expect advertising, real estate developments and private investors to fund up to a third of the total costs.And as with most major infrastructure projects, costs are likely to rise as new hurdles emerge. Last year, the rail authority boosted its cost estimate for one key segment in the Central Valley by 15 percent, or about $1 billion. Some opponents believe the costs could skyrocket to about $250 billion or more.
IF the internet doesn’t change the way people work, reducing both commuting and the demand for business travel, IF the giant project doesn’t mimic almost all similar projects and develop gigantic cost overruns that make a mockery of the initial cost elements, IF resourceful NIMBY groups and their lawyers don’t find too many endangered species in its path or otherwise tie it up in endless litigation, IF self driving cars don’t make rail travel obsolete, IF the fares aren’t so high even with subsidies that passengers shun it, and IF unlike almost all other passenger rail service in the U.S. it doesn’t lose buckets of money, this project could look like a smart move.For those who don’t buy the Great Green Train story, this looks like a last-ditch effort to project 20th-century ideas about transportation into the future, while both appeasing greens (it’s a train!) and lubricating traditional Democratic labor and business constituencies (it’s a gigantic public works project!). It’s brilliant in its own way, but it’s not the kind of thinking California needs.