Kerry Jackson | Enough of Politicians’ Expensive Toys

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With President Joe Biden now making federal transportation policy, the reckless California high-speed rail project is in line for a $929 million grant from Washington, D.C. The funds will surely be squandered in similar fashion to the billions already wasted.

The grant had been sensibly pulled by Donald Trump in 2019. In announcing the cancellation, the Federal Railroad Administration said California had “abandoned its original vision of a high-speed passenger rail service connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles, which was essential to its applications for” funding. Sacramento recovered what Gov. Gavin Newsom said is California’s money only after suing the federal government and settling earlier this month with the Biden administration.

The nearly $1 billion gift of American taxpayer dollars will give bullet train supporters further reason to harden their positions, but it won’t cover much in a project that grew from an originally estimated cost of $33 billion to $117 billion before being pared back to roughly $100 billion. It is also “a drop in the bucket,” says Wendell Cox, three-term appointee to the L.A. County Transportation Commission and co-author of three reports on the high-speed rail project, “compared to the cost escalation on just the first 119-mile segment.” 

Its price tag has more than doubled, from $6 billion to nearly $14 billion, even as it’s “probably the easiest segment to build.” 

Newsom called the settlement “further proof that California and the Biden-Harris Administration share a common vision – clean, electrified transportation that will serve generations to come.” But there’s a generation of California drivers in the present wasting hours on overcrowded and torn-up highways, reaching into their wallets to pay for repairs because the neglected roads are wrecking their automobiles – and at the same time paying the highest prices for all grades of gasoline in the nation, and second-highest prices for diesel. Wouldn’t that $929 billion be of some use to them?

Meanwhile, there’s no way to know exactly when those generations Newsom mentioned will begin to be served. The best scientific guess is not any time soon. Jerry Brown’s bullet train was supposed to be fully operable across its entire length, from San Diego through Los Angeles, connecting San Francisco, then ending in Sacramento, by 2020. We’re now the middle of 2021, and the project is struggling to finish a 171-mile stretch between Bakersfield and Merced, “two places,” Chapman University fellow in urban studies Joel Kotkin tells Reason, “that don’t have any particular relationship with each other.”

But the impracticality goes well beyond a train linking a pair of cities that aren’t traditionally knit together.

“You have to get a car once you get to the station” in both cities, Kotkin added, since Merced and Bakersfield wouldn’t be final destinations for most travelers, as San Diego, Los Angeles and Sacramento would be. Neither are they job centers “that anyone is going to commute” to and from the other city.

That particular stretch, which has been called a starter system, won’t be offering even interim service until 2029 (and its cost will be more than 60% of the initial estimates for the entire 800-mile system). Once completed, it will remain an orphan until 2033, when the Los Angeles/Anaheim-San Francisco segment is finally open. In the meantime, drivers and passengers will continue to use beaten, battered and jammed roads while billions in transportation funds are misallocated.

Biden, who picked up the tag “Amtrak Joe” because of the 7,000 or so trips he’s made between his Delaware home and Washington, D.C., says he has an emotional connection with the “cherished American institution” of rail travel. 

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg says he “can’t wait” for high-speed rail to spread across the country. 

Former Gov. Jerry Brown has compared the laying of track for the bullet train to the construction of the great cathedrals of Europe, and in his final State of the State address said, “I make no bones about it: I like trains, and I like high-speed trains even better.”

Public projects should not be expensive playthings for politicians, or tools for burnishing their legacies, and there’s no greater example of this sort of political turpitude than the refusal to shut down California’s high-speed rail. This isn’t shocking, though. Elected officials, as columnist Dan Walters has written, operate by the rule “that launching new programs enhances one’s standing.” Abandoning plans is considered an admission of defeat.

There’d be great respect, though, for those who showed the courage to stand athwart the bullet train’s unfinished tracks and say stop.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

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