Plowing Ahead with the High Speed Rail Boondoggle
March 26, 2013 - 4:10 pm
One of my favorite songs growing up was the Tom Paxton classic “The Marvelous Toy”:
When I was just a wee little lad,
Full of health and joy,
My father homeward came one night
And gave to me a toy.
A wonder to behold it was
With many colors bright
And the moment I laid eyes on it,
It became my heart’s delight.
It went “Zip” when it moved, and “Bop” when it stopped,
And “Whirrr” when it stood still.
I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will.
This song perfectly captures what some politicians feel about high speed rail. It’s sexy. It’s seductive. It does really cool things. And you wish you had one when you were 10 years old.
Unfortunately, it’s a very expensive toy. President Obama earmarked $12 billion for high speed rail in the stimulus bill — money, as CNN reports, that has been a monumental waste:
Andrew Johnson at NRO:
On his CNN show last night, Anderson Cooper chronicled the Obama administration’s unfulfilled promises and wasteful spending on high-speed rail projects across the country. Cooper and investigative reporter Drew Griffin reported that, while the administration sold its $12 billion in projects as high-speed rail, the funding has spent has largely been used to make existing trains slightly faster. In Washington State, for instance, $800 million have been used to reduce the length of the trip from Seattle to Portland by 10 minutes.
I was struck by reporter Drew Griffin’s reference to the “dream” of Obama for high speed rail. Perhaps if the president was forced to fund his own dreams, he wouldn’t spend $12 billion to make them come true.
And, of course, the thrust of the report is that the money is not being spent on high speed rail projects. The vast majority of the funds were spent on improving existing track so that regular, old, slow trains could go a little faster.
$12 billion dollars. And another billion dollars this year.
Not to be deterred, Governor Jerry is pushing ahead with his pet project to run a high speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Despite his state’s precarious finances, he is set to try and sell $8.6 billion in bonds to build his $68 billion boondoggle — a project more and more Californians are opposing.
California is already deeply in debt, has the nation’s highest unemployment rate, the nation’s highest poverty rate, and the nation’s highest taxes. Despite all this, California Gov. Jerry Brown is set to sell $8.6 billion in bonds this year to begin paying for a $68 billion high-speed rail project. How does Brown plan to come up with the other $60 or so billion? He has no clue.
Even better, a majority of Californians have turned against the project. A new Public Policy Institute of California poll found that 54 percent of California likely voters now oppose building the high-speed rail system. Among all adults, 50 percent now oppose the high-speed rail plan and just 48 percent support it.
No one believes that $68 billion price tag. The costs for massive projects like this are always underestimated by contractors and policymakers, hoping that when the costs skyrocket, no one will want to kill a project for which billions have already been spent.
California will be issuing bonds for a project that will almost certainly never be completed since the bulk of funding is supposed to come from Washington. In an era of shrinking budgets, it is extremely unlikely that one high speed rail project for one state will survive the budget ax.
There are compelling arguments to halt the project now before any more money is thrown away. The San Francisco Examiner:
Ten years ago, the authors of “Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition” examined more than 200 projects and concluded that the costs for large-scale public transit projects usually result in cost overruns of 50 percent and that revenue routinely falls short by 20 percent to 70 percent. The forces behind such wild projections are the contractors, builders and consultants who stand to gain from the construction and are unchecked by policymakers with no real means to verify overly optimistic ridership models or stop construction once it has begun.
Here in California, construction on high-speed rail is about to begin. Once the shovels are in the ground and the trucks are full of materials, it will be near impossible to pull the plug; the segment being built first is in the middle of the state and not an urban area where a small segment of track could be repurposed for local travel if the larger project is abbreviated.
So eager are supporters to get the project going that on March 13, Democrats on the Joint Legislative Audit Committee rejected a request by state Sen. Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, for an audit of the initial 29-mile segment between Madera and Fresno known as Construction Package One.
According to Harkey, construction of the segment will cost $1.1 million per day, which more than warrants the $295,000 price tag for an audit. Some of the items that audit would have looked at are: whether contractors are complying with applicable laws, whether there is duplication of effort, and how the authority plans to acquire the necessary 356 parcels of land, much of it productive farmland.
Democrats on the committee claimed that the time has come to get ball rolling on the project and pointed to the fact that two audits of the authority have already been conducted, though neither was of the construction phase.
The 2010 audit concluded that there was “inadequate planning, weak oversight, and lax contract management.”
The 2012 audit concluded that the, “authority’s weak oversight persists.”
That the prior two audits revealed serious issues makes an additional audit more appealing, not less. While construction labor unions and other special interest groups will never let high-speed rail be on the ballot for reconsideration, at least proponents can acknowledge the public’s skepticism.
There has been a romance in America with trains since they were invented. We were the first nation to make profitable use of locomotives, with ribbons of rails blanketing the eastern half of the country by 1860. And talk about dreams — the transcontinental railroad fired the imagination of the entire country after the civil war. But for all the romanticism associated with the railroad, its construction was terribly costly in terms of human life and the doom of Native American culture. It was said that there was a dead gandy dancer for every mile of track laid. Chinese workers didn’t fare any better. Still, the project connected the nation as it has never been before. created the first national markets (Sears Roebuck’s catalogs followed the train’s progress westward), and caused the final setting of the sun on America’s westward expansion.
Even today, Amtrak sells their service as an American adventure. The American railroad mythos still stirs the blood of hobbyists, history buffs, and ordinary citizens who experience the adventure at railroad museums and attractions all across the country.
It’s nice to dream. But we don’t need this one. Not only is high speed rail ruinously expensive to build, the cost of a ticket will have to be subsidized by taxpayers to make the venture profitable. Hopefully, common sense will prevail and we’ll halt this California project and any others that are being planned, before we wake up one day and realize the white elephant we’ve bought into.