As oft-noted in this space, those in California’s state government — governors, legislators and agency directors — have an unfortunate habit of starting programs and projects that are never fully implemented.

These governmental orphans fall roughly into two categories, those that have some valid rationale and those that don’t.

Dan Walters


For instance, applying technology to public services makes perfect conceptual sense, but we’ve lost count on how many “information technology” projects have consumed billions of dollars without delivering the promised benefits of better service delivery and better data.

The latest poster child for half-baked IT projects is FI$Cal, which is supposed to consolidate numerous financial management and reporting systems into one, but has already cost more than $1 billion and shows no signs of working anytime soon.

Using technology still makes sense, but if the state bureaucracy is incapable of implementing it, it’s just money down a rathole.

Speaking of which, many billions of dollars are also going down that dark hole for projects that made no sense in the first place, with the state’s bullet train a prime example.

Building About 100 Miles of Track in the San Joaquin Valley

For decades, a certain segment of California’s population has swooned over the notion of an uber-fast north-south rail system, ala those in Japan, China and Europe. However, advocates never provided a logical rationale, given that traveling up and down California is relatively easy while movement within urban areas is our toughest transportation problem.

Eleven years ago, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other advocates persuaded voters to pass a $9.95 billion bond issue, assuring them that the system could be built for about $40 billion, would attract outside investors, and be operationally self-supporting.

None of that has come to pass. The state’s High-Speed Rail Authority is now more or less building about 100 miles of track in the San Joaquin Valley, using money from bonds and $3.5 billion in federal grants.

In January, a newly inaugurated Gov. Gavin Newsom more or less abandoned the notion of a statewide system, citing lack of money, and then more or less backtracked and said he wanted to slightly lengthen and complete the San Joaquin Valley section.

President Donald Trump’s administration, always on the prowl for ways to ding blue California, then held up nearly $1 billion in grant funds and demanded that money already sent, and partially spent, be returned because the underlying contract had been violated.

Not Enough Money in the Kitty to Do What’s Now Contemplated

Defying federal officials and its own peer review committee, the bullet train board this month decided to solicit bids from three firms to electrify the track now under construction and build a maintenance garage to service the system.

“It is premature for (the rail authority) to undertake another major design-build contract. The current construction packages continue to face significant and continuing delays building the necessary civil construction.” — The Federal Railroad Administration

The Federal Railroad Administration warned the state not to move forward, saying in a letter, “It is premature for (the rail authority) to undertake another major design-build contract. The current construction packages continue to face significant and continuing delays building the necessary civil construction.”

There’s not enough money in the kitty to do what’s now contemplated, and proceeding seems to be a defiant gesture by Newsom, who fancies himself a leader of the anti-Trump “resistance,” and a political wager that Trump will be replaced by a friendly Democrat a year hence.

It also sets up a confrontation with legislators, such as Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who see the bullet train as a loser and would like to tap the bonds for improving urban commuter service.

Some of the money has already been siphoned away to electrify commuter rail service along the San Francisco Peninsula and Rendon wants a similar allocation for Southern California. That makes much more sense than completing a mini-bullet train to nowhere.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to

One Response

  1. Martin Querin

    With all due respect to Mr. Walters, I would like to provide a two-fold rationale for a functional High Speed Rail. The first is aimed directly at the congestion issue in the major metro regions mentioned as our biggest problem in the article. If people were able to live at a lower cost of living and still access the job markets in the two major metro regions, without having to drive a car they wouldn’t need to commute from Bakersfield or Modesto by car to LA and SF. That could reduce commute traffic in the major metro regions, the average standard of living and improve air quality.

    Secondly, the central portion of the State is a giant fiscal sucking sound. While the Central Valley consumes most of the water, producing most of the food, it also produces less than 10% of the States GDP. Agriculture and the communities that support it require massive subsidies because their average income and property value, the two things that drive State and local finances are the lowest in the State. Providing access to the two major job poles in the bipolar State (pardon the pun) from the impoverished Center of the State will improve the economies of these regions, which in turn will improve State revenues and reduce pressure to increase taxes; it will allow these regions to be more self-supporting reducing the need for subsidies and increase average income and property values, which would in turn increase tax revenues.

    If you want more money to support non-revenue generating social programs and to concurrently reduce demand on these programs, you might want to think through the consequences of a well designed and thought out HSR. The unfortunate truth is, the HSR isn’t a bad project, it is a poorly conceived one because in this State we have to cowtow to every micro-constituency and instead of building a straight rail through miles of greenfield with only a few stops and requiring the Counties to develop their own connectivity projects. We build a rail following a rail system that needed stops every few miles to load up coal and water for steam engines. We build a rail system to connect north and south and at the same time expand the freeway to 6-lanes for the entire stretch. We avoid addressing the fact that freight pays and passengers don’t to avoid a fight with the railroads and truckers.

    So in that, the article was spot on; unsophisticated and parochial California voters get what they asked for. Generally speaking an abomination conceived by compromised decision making and given birth by well-meaning bureaucrats who will not point out that piss poor planning was the father, but rather blame the failed program on “unintended consequences and “mitigating circumstances”; it’s the equivalent of acting surprised, when you didn’t use contraception.


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