California's High-Speed Dream Derailed
Published on January 22, 2020
The failure of California’s high-speed rail project demonstrates that everyone loses when politicians make promises they can’t keep. What was supposed to be a cost-effective infrastructure project has turned into a multibillion-dollar disaster, failing to achieve its initial goals while still costing many times its promised price. California’s experience teaches many lessons about the true cost and likely experience with large-scale transportation projects.
- What can taxpayers learn from California's high-speed rail project?
- How often do large infrastructure projects come in at cost or under budget?
- Read “A Closer Look at the Left’s Agenda: Scientific, Economic, and Numerical Illiteracy on the Campaign Trail” by Michael J. Boskin, available here:
- Read “California Dreamin’: Of Bolder Leaders Unafraid to Challenge the Vested Interests Running the Golden State—And Ruining Its Future” by Michael J. Boskin, available here:
- Read “California’s Bullet-Train Fiasco Continues: $20 Billion for 120 Miles?” by Lee Ohanian, available here:
The proponents of California High-Speed Rail made big promises. A safe, carbon-free ride that would deliver you 520 miles from Los Angeles to the Bay Area in just two hours and forty minutes. For California’s taxpayers, it would come cheap too. Its original projected cost of $33 billion would be paid mainly by the federal government and the private sector.
For California voters it was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up. In 2008, they approved a $9 billion bond measure to fund the project.
It didn’t take long to get off track. Strict environmental regulations and opposition from communities that didn’t want a train running through their backyard led to construction delays and cost overruns. By 2012, the $33 billion estimate had doubled to $68 billion.
As the cost estimates rose, the projected speeds fell. To save money, they chose to repurpose existing rail lines that couldn’t handle the promised top-speed of 220 miles per hour. So high-speed rail became blended-speed rail. Meanwhile, seismic studies found the southern portion of the ride would be vulnerable to earthquakes, meaning higher costs and slower speeds. In response, the High-Speed Rail Authority decided to build the northern half first in hopes that it would then be impossible to stop construction on the more expensive southern half.
When construction finally began in 2015, it was on a short phase of the project in the agricultural central valley from Bakersfield to Merced—nowhere near the promised destinations. Revised cost estimates suggested the project would take $77 to $98 billion to complete. Making matters worse, the private and federal funding, originally expected to pay for most of the project, never materialized.
A decade after California voters approved the project, California Governor Gavin Newsom admitted defeat. The initial phase of the project will be the final phase of the project. The vision of a high-speed rail delivering passengers from Los Angeles to the Bay Area has turned into a short, 110 mile ride in the relatively lightly traveled corridor from Bakersfield to Merced.
What lessons can we learn from the billions of dollars wasted on this California boondoggle?
The failures of the California high-speed rail were predictable. Before construction had begun, due diligence reports found that the promised speeds and low costs were based on unrealistic assumptions.
Today, many politicians are proposing massive investments in public transportation projects. Whether it is the Green New Deal or the platforms of democratic presidential candidate, the proposals inevitably promise cheap and reliable travel options that will free the nation from carbon-emitting transportation.
But California’s experience is not unique. It reflects the environmental, political, and economic challenges that any large-scale transportation projects would face. This doesn’t mean that future high-speed rail projects are not worth considering. However, misleading voters about the true costs of the projects, the time it will take to complete them, or the eventual rider experience will mean more trains to nowhere, financed by gigantic tax hikes and further erosion of trust in government.