After years of cost overruns, lawsuits, and construction delays, California’s utopian high-speed rail project just got another wrench thrown in its gears—this time by the Trump administration. Governing magazine reports:
Federal Transit Administration has put the brakes on a $647 million grant to help pay for electrification of a commuter train system on the San Francisco Peninsula that was considered a key part of extending California’s planned high-speed rail line to the Bay Area.
The federal agency’s move to defer a decision on the grant agreement that had been reached with the Obama administration comes weeks after Republicans in California’s congressional delegation asked U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to pull the plug on the grant.
The high-speed rail project, approved by voters in 2008, always seemed appealing in the abstract—to environmentalists who touted the benefits of mass public transit, to labor unions and developers who saw a windfall in the making, and to Democrats nostalgic for 20th century blue model governance who wanted to prove that the government could still execute iconic public works projects.
But in the intervening time, the skeptics have largely been vindicated: Our regulatory procedures and tort laws are too labyrinthian for construction projects to be completed efficiently; public sector administrators have been incapable of accurately predicting costs and time horizons of the enterprise; and, in any case, it looks more and more likely that telecommuting and new technologies like self-driving cars will diminish the benefits that flow from mass public transportation.
It’s good that the Transportation Department put the federal cash spigot on hold, but it’s a testament to California’s own failures of governance and imagination that the administration was faced with this decision in the first place.