Nearly five years ago, just after becoming governor of California, Gavin Newsom came close to telling the truth about the state’s misconceived, poorly managed and underfinanced bullet train project.
“But let’s be real,” Newsom told the Legislature. “The current project, as planned, would cost too much and respectfully take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.
“Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A.,” Newsom said. “I wish there were. However, we do have the capacity to complete a high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield.”
News media logically inferred that Newsom wanted to shrink what had been envisioned as a statewide system to a starter line in the San Joaquin Valley. But he quickly blamed journalists for misconstruing his remarks after receiving heat from the project’s stakeholders, particularly construction unions.
A half-decade later, what Newsom said in 2019 is still true. It would still cost too much, take too long and deliver too little. In fact the much-revised cost projection for just the Merced-Bakersfield stretch tops the $33 billion that sponsors of the 2008 bullet train bond issue said would build a complete system.
Project Gets Federal Funding Boost
Last week, the Biden administration provided a much-needed $3.1 billion grant that the High-Speed Rail Authority says would help complete the 119-mile segment now under construction from Madera to a point north of Bakersfield, including rolling stock and some of the 52 miles of extensions to Merced and Bakersfield that still lack financing.
Yes, it’s possible that some trains may be zipping up and down the San Joaquin Valley sometime in the next decade. But to what avail? Does anyone think that a bullet train between Merced and Bakersfield would draw enough riders to justify the cost?
In theory, Merced could be connected to San Jose by another segment, allowing transfers to and from the Caltrain line on the San Francisco Peninsula. But tunneling through the coastal range of mountains would costs tens of billions of dollars more.
In theory, Bakersfield could be connected to Los Angeles by another extension over or through the Southern California mountains, but that’s an even more daunting and expensive project.
The current estimate for a complete San Francisco-Los Angeles system is up to $128 billion – nearly four times the 2008 bond issue estimate – and continues to grow due to time and inflation.
No one has come up with anything resembling a complete financing plan. The project limps along on remnants of the bond issue, some money from the state’s cap-and-trade auctions of pollution credits and occasional handouts from Washington when the Democrats are in power.
Meanwhile, Newsom has morphed from skeptic to booster.
“California is delivering on the first 220-mph, electric high-speed rail project in the nation,” he said in a statement last week. “This show of support from the Biden-Harris Administration is a vote of confidence in today’s vision and comes at a critical turning point, providing the project new momentum.”
Newsom, however, will be out of the picture at least a few years before anything moves down the tracks, leaving the project to his successors.
And what would we get if the project is fully completed decades hence? By the project’s own data, a complete system would reduce automotive travel in California by 10 million vehicle-miles a day, which sounds impressive until one learns that Californians drive about 900 million miles each day.
In other words, under the most optimistic scenario, auto traffic would be reduced by scarcely 1% – the proverbial drop in the bucket.
About the Author
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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