The Train to Nowhere: The Dream of California Liberals Becomes a Nightmare

By Troy Senik | July 19, 2012 | Center for Individual Freedom

A USC/Los Angeles Times poll conducted in May showed a whopping 59 percent of Californians saying they would oppose the plan if presented with it again.

“This is a courageous step forward for California’s future.”

Those were the words recently uttered by Jim Wunderman, a man who must be accounted an optimist given the general consensus that “California’s future” is something of a bear market. The occasion for Mr. Wunderman’s remarks, however, reveal him to have crossed the line from optimism into delusion.

Wunderman, you see, is the president and CEO of Northern California’s Bay Area Council, a business group made up of denizens of Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay area that has long championed California’s plans to build a high-speed rail line connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco. And his effusiveness was occasioned by the state legislature’s decision to allow California to issue $4.6 billion in new debt for initial construction on the project, supposedly revolutionizing the state’s often-sclerotic transportation system in the process.

Wunderman may be the last man in the State of California who feels this way. In truth, government-initiated high-speed rail has never commanded the imaginations of a broad swath of Californians.

When the project came to the ballot in 2008 as Proposition 1A, it passed with the support of less than 53 percent of voters. Granted, a simple majority was all that was needed for victory, but a look down ballot provides some much-needed context. Proposition 8, the state’s controversial prohibition on gay marriage, passed with only 4/10 of a percentage point less support than high-speed rail. The same liberals who have denounced that decision ever since as the unjust verdict of a “slim majority” have proceeded as if the plan for Golden State bullet trains has the mandate of heaven.

The public shortcomings of the project, however – foremost among which is the fact that, nearly four years after being authorized by voters, not a single inch of track has been laid – have led to undeniable cracks in that façade. A USC/Los Angeles Times poll conducted in May showed a whopping 59 percent of Californians saying they would oppose the plan if presented with it again.

The implications for California liberals weren’t just limited to the transportation issue. With Governor Jerry Brown pushing a November initiative that would raise the state’s income and sales taxes to national highs, voters are beginning to demand fiscal prioritization. A Field Poll released in early July showed more than 20 percent of California voters who supported Brown’s tax increase declaring themselves likely to switch their vote if the state approved funding for the high-speed rail project. With overall support for the tax hike already standing at only 54 percent, that threatens to be a mortal blow.

How did it come to this? High-speed rail, after all, is an endeavor that seems ideally suited to California’s self-image – futuristic, driven by high technology and environmentally conscious.  But no amount of appealing to the state’s pretensions (Californians tend to think of themselves as carbon-neutral versions of “The Jetsons”) can mask the unmitigated failures that have met the project at every turn.

The comedy of errors began with the 2008 ballot initiative, whose supporters were utopian in thought and intemperate in speech. During the initiative campaign, advocates for the project claimed that it would replace up to 92 million car trips annually, the sort of wild-eyed forecasting the world hasn’t seen since the days of the Soviet politburo.

As enthusiasm for high-speed rail has cooled, those projections have declined alongside the poll numbers, with estimates now running between 28 and 37 million riders per year. But as Stanford transportation historian Richard White noted late last year in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, “If California high-speed rail captured the same percentage of riders as Amtrak’s Acela does today in the Northeast corridor, an area with a long tradition of rail travel and a higher population than California, it would have about 5 million riders, not 28 million to 37 million.”

Similar failures have been ubiquitous. The project’s price tag, pegged at $40 billion when it appeared on the ballot in 2008, has now swelled to nearly $100 billion (more than 5 percent of the state’s entire annual economic product), with expenditures including more than $12 million that have already been spent on PR alone. In January, the state-appointed California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group suggested delaying the project indefinitely because it lacked something so basic as a viable business model.

A lawsuit against the project filed by Kings County (located in the state’s Central Valley, where the first segments are to be built) alleges that no research has been done to establish the speed of the trains, even though Prop 1A contained a legally-binding requirement that they average 140 miles per hour.

The Center for Investigate Reporting’s California Watch quoted Kings County’s lawyer, Michael Brady, as saying, “All over the state … they’re going to use commuter trains, Caltrain, light rail in Stockton. You’re not going to be able to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco in six hours.” Consider, by way of contrast, that flight times between the two cities average about an hour.

As should be expected on a public works project of this size, there’s plenty of cronyism at work too. Bob Balgenorth, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, penned an op-ed for the Bakersfield Californian late last year arguing that high-speed rail should be pursued at the expense of relieving congestion on California’s crowded freeways, the nation’s worst. Balgenorth, whose union was looking for a piece of the action on the project, was – entirely by coincidence, surely – made a member of the California High Speed Rail Authority’s board of directors last year.

And there are plenty of spoils to go around. In January, a report issued by State Auditor Elaine Howle noted that, “Without sufficient staffing, the authority has struggled to oversee its contractors and subcontractors, who outnumber its employees by about 25 to one.” The same report went on to note that the authority had also broken state laws that prevent contractors from subdividing contracts in order to skirt requirements for competitive bidding, breaking up an IT contract worth over $3 million into 13 parts all awarded to the same provider.

It’s a grim irony that people like Jim Wunderman – a representative of the hotbed of innovation that is Silicon Valley – define this costly boondoggle as “California’s future.” Even in midst of the state’s current economic travails, the fruits of entrepreneurship, free markets and decentralized experimentation can be seen in nearly every corner of California. Yet the state’s political class continues to define “progress” in terms of central planning. It may be the purest expression of the dominant ideology in Sacramento, a mindset that one sees in each of the nation’s most dysfunctional capitols – Albany, Springfield and, alas, Washington D.C.

For the sake of the nation, let’s hope that the high-speed rail project finally terminates California’s role as a national bellwether. If not, the consequences could be grim. Take it from those of us on the West Coast: we’ve seen your future … and it doesn’t work.

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