May 1, 2018

BROWN’S BILLION-DOLLAR BOONDOGGLE: Slow Death of the Train to Nowhere.

John Fund:

In 2011, the new GOP governors of Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin turned down federal money for trains. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker told me: “Washington may help pay for building it, but we’d be stuck paying the operating costs of a boondoggle.”

But California’s transportation planners, who never encountered a boondoggle they couldn’t embrace, pressed on despite mounting costs and construction delays. In 2015, desperate to beat a deadline that would have meant the end of federal funding, they began construction on a 119-mile segment of track in the state’s sparsely settled Central Valley. Fewer than 3 percent of the train’s potential riders live along that portion of the route, but backers believed that if they built the Central Valley segment, the sunken costs would convince state legislators to find money for the remaining segments.

That is increasingly unlikely. In January, the California High Speed Rail Authority released its new business plan. Assemblyman Jim Patterson, a train critic who represents Fresno, promptly labeled it a “going-out-of-business plan.”

According to the Authority’s own numbers, the train’s costs have soared to a likely $77 billion — more than double the original cost estimate of $32 billion. If anything goes wrong, the tab for the project could hit $98 billion, or 50 times the current annual appropriation for the nationwide Amtrak system. As for delays, the Authority conceded that rail service on the portion of the route from Bakersfield to San Jose probably won’t begin until 2029, a full nine years after the entire system was supposed to be complete.

As for the “high speed” aspect of the train, the Authority now admits that the two-hour-and-40-minute travel time that helped sell the initial bonding of the train in 2008 will now slip to, at best, three hours and 30 minutes. Travel time on some runs will be up to five hours.

The question Californians need to ask is: Where did the money go?

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