‘Bullet’ Train to Nowhere Is Emblematic of California’s Political Dysfunction
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North Africa is less politically dysfunctional than California.
That’s according to a project manager with the French national railroad, regarding California’s massively expensive, way-behind-schedule high-speed rail project, which has been in the works for more than a decade.
A report this week by The New York Times highlights the lowlights of the California high-speed rail project. The report chronicle s it all—overpromises, delays, misused money, environmental roadblocks, bad engineering, and political horse-trading.
The only thing missing is the word “Democrats,” the party that’s primarily responsible for this mess. Reference to the Democratic Party only appears once in the piece. It is The New York Times, after all.
The only part of the high-speed rail project that might get completed runs through the state’s rural farm belt. That’s hardly the speedy connection between the state’s two major urban areas initially promised.
Part of the problem seems to be that the line was diverted for political reasons. From The Times’ report:
A review of hundreds of pages of documents, engineering reports, meeting transcripts, and interviews with dozens of key political leaders show that the detour through the Mojave Desert was part of a string of decisions that, in hindsight, have seriously impeded the state’s ability to deliver on its promise to create a new way of transporting people in an era of climate change.
The best line of the entire article came from Dan McNamara, a career project manager for the French national railroad company, SNCF. The French company was looking for a contract to work on the project and, according to the report, wanted a more direct line between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It pulled out of the project in 2011.
“There were so many things that went wrong,” McNamara said, according to The Times. “SNCF was very angry. They told the state they were leaving for North Africa, which was less politically dysfunctional. They went to Morocco and helped them build a rail system.”
It turns out they were right. Morocco finished its system in 2018.
Back in the day, Americans used to complete huge infrastructure projects the French couldn’t finish. What happened? Modern California happened.
The problem with California’s high-speed rail goes deeper than one politicized detour.
Saying the California project is a runaway train would be too easy. Trains won’t be running on this boondoggle anytime soon, but its failure does shine a light on the absolute dysfunction of the once-golden Golden State.
The California high-speed rail project was approved by California voters through Proposition 1A way back in 2008. The proposition also authorized $9.5 billion in bonds for the planned 800-mile project set to operate between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
According to the report, California’s High-Speed Rail Authority has accelerated construction on the project “but at the current spending rate of $1.8 million a day, according to projections widely used by engineers and project managers, the train could not be completed in this century.”
Imagine telling mid-20th-century Californians that 21st-century Californians would dream of a future not with flying cars, but half-completed bullet trains.
Now, if the burden of this folly simply fell on California voters, that would be one thing. But the joke is really on the country. President Joe Biden last year restored nearly $1 billion in federal money to the project that had been canceled by the Trump administration. Billions have already been spent.
It seems that whenever Democrats are in power, expect at least some money to get flushed down the drain to keep this thing going while enriching bureaucrats at the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
To put things in perspective for how dysfunctional the high-speed rail project has been, let’s use the example of the Erie Canal. Construction of the canal, a massive project stretching over 350 miles, was intended to create a navigable waterway stretching from Lake Erie to the Atlantic Ocean. The project began in 1817.
The project didn’t receive a single dollar in federal funding. Congress passed legislation to fund the canal, but President James Madison vetoed it, citing constitutionality concerns. New Yorkers were serious about building the canal, so they funded it anyway.
As it turns out, leaving the project to the state was a good idea. New Yorkers completed the Erie Canal in 1825, less than 10 years later. It was largely responsible for turning New York into the “Empire State,” an economic powerhouse. It paid for itself.
“Almost instantly, toll revenue from the canal was nearly five times more than the interest due from the state’s bond debt,” according to NPR. “By 1837, only about a decade after completion, the entire debt was paid off. By the early 1850s, the canal carried over 60% of total U.S. trade.”
The California high-speed rail project is incredible in its own way. After more than 10 years and a whole lot of money, the project hadn’t even really started. It projected to “finish” in incomplete form another 10 years from now.
At this rate, the sun will set in the East, pigs will fly, and hell will freeze over before California’s bullet train to nowhere actually pays off.
Even if by some miracle the high-speed rail project gets “completed,” its impact could be extremely underwhelming.
David Ditch, a transportation-policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, explained the “bullet” train’s limitations:
They plan to ultimately have 27 stations, most in small cities that would have minimal demand. Marginal stations add to overall construction costs, while dramatically reducing how long the trains can spend at top speeds. That means taxpayers get mediocre, average speeds, but have to pay a premium for the high-speed infrastructure.
(The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
There you have it. Decades of failure, untold billions of dollars in cost, all for a relatively slow, limited rail system. It’s another warning to the country not to follow California’s lead.
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