When Californians gave the state’s high-speed rail project its initial go-ahead four years ago, opponents called the plan unaffordable and unrealistic. Nothing has happened since to prove the skeptics wrong.
The bullet train’s promoters have been forced to backtrack on projection after projection. On cost: It was raised to triple what voters were told, then trimmed to double. On ridership, revenue and profits: The forecasts for all of those have been lowered. On job creation: A rosy estimate of hundreds of thousands of jobs turned out to be phony, calculated by counting, say, one job that lasts 10 years as 10 jobs.
And now comes the latest adjustment, in the construction calendar. Officials of the California High-Speed Rail Authority said the first phase of construction, on a 130-mile segment of the state’s Central Valley, now is scheduled to be completed by December 2017, a year later than previously stated.
The delay will reduce cost, which certainly is worthwhile for a project with a (current) $68 billion price tag.
But this further lowering of expectations is another reason to think the voters were sold a fantasy when they approved $9.9 billion in bonds in November 2008 and that the project should not be speeding toward groundbreaking next summer.
In fact, it is not speeding along, whether or not its promoters acknowledge that fact. Gov. Jerry Brown’s grand plan to connect the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas at 220 mph by the year 2033 continues to take one chug forward on the political and legal track even as it takes one chug backward on the rhetorical track.
Its key legislative approval was achieved only by the narrowest possible margin a few months ago when the state Senate voted 21-19 to approve $5.8 billion in early funding from bonds and the federal government. Four Democrats defected to the "no” side, citing the cost and timing.
And a key legal obstacle was cleared only tentatively last week when a Superior Court judge in Sacramento denied a request by Central Valley farmers for an injunction against planning for the construction of rail lines through their property.
The substance of the farmers’ lawsuit is expected to be heard in the spring — and that’s not the only suit the high-speed rail system faces from property owners and environmentalists.
Hanging over what could become Brown’s signature project is the question of affordability. Californians voted for the initial bond as the state and nation were sinking into recession. Four years later, the damage from the bad economy continues to be felt, and it remains unclear how all of the bonds, federal funding, private investment and operating revenue will add up to pay for the 520-mile rail line.
The ranks of the skeptics should be growing, not shrinking, as the public waits for proof that the bullet-train project we might end up with is the bullet-train project we were promised.