One of the few times Gov. Gavin Newsom had it right was when he declared in his inaugural speech that it was time to move on from the expensive train. Pressure built from Democratic constituencies and he rolled over to launch instead a171-mile segment connecting Bakersfield to Merced that was supposed to cost $22.8 million and begin operating in 2030. You can see constructed portions of that project when you travel on Highway 99 in the Fresno area.
As reported in CalMatters last week, so much for that plan. Estimated ridership has dropped 25% from what were undoubtedly optimistic numbers and costs have skyrocketed. The latest report from the California High-Speed Rail Authority shows that first segment now is pegged at $35 billion, higher than the $33 billion the entire system from San Francisco to Los Angeles was supposed to cost when voters were sold it in 2008.
The full system estimate is now $128 billion, leaving a yawning $100 billion gap for the politicians to figure out how to cover. The way it should be covered is scuttling the project—no more throwing good money after bad.
It’s worth remembering that when the project costs soared beyond $100 billion during the Jerry Brown Administration, they pruned the project back so it appeared more palatable to potential investors as well as voters.
CalMatters reported, “Ethan Elkind, who watches California transportation issues as director of the climate change program at UC Berkeley's law school, said the mounting problems cloud the project's future.
"It is in jeopardy," Elkind said. "It is dicey. There is no path forward for the full Los Angeles to San Francisco system. It is important that they get something done."
Brown convinced the Legislature to allocate 25% of the state’s cap-and-trade climate revenues to the project—a questionable move at best and now even more suspect given the ridership estimates. The state, under Newsom and the air board, is moving rapidly to try to ban internal combustion engines in favor of electric vehicles. That lowers the positive climate impact of the high-speed rail, although the chances of that being achieved given the state of Northern California’s power grid is dicey at best.
Mix in sceptics in the Legislature who have increasingly questioned the expense and the viability of the high-speed rail and the authority may finally face an too much of an uphill battle to keep it going. The system was supposed to operate without any public subsidy and with no additional investment beyond the initial $10 billion in bonds. That provision got ignored when the cap-and-trade funds were added into the pot and the Obama Administration dumped in $3 billion from its initial stimulus pork-barrel bill for a project was supposedly was shovel-ready. It then extended the deadline several times. The Trump Administration set out to take back more than $1 billion based on broken deadlines, but the Biden Administration—given the president’s love for rail travel—reinstated it.
It’s certainly good for consultants and labor unions to keep building the boondoggle—where taxpayers fall on that scale is an open question. The Sacramento Democrats are so tied to public employee and other union interests that it would take an act of unusual courage—and putting the voters first—to pull the plug.