Falling support for the bullet train

High-speed rail advocates are on edge as the governor and the state legislature squabble over where to spend the high-speed rail project’s remaining bond money.

Advocates say the delays in funding are feeding into the notion that the project is taking too long and harming public support. They are right to be worried. A recent poll from Goodwin Simon Strategic Research showed that more Californians support ending construction on the project than support continuing it.

But advocates have it  backwards. It isn’t the uncertainty in funding that is causing diminishing  support, it’s that Californians are aware of the magnitude of the scam.

Let’s recap.

In 2008, voters approved almost $10 billion in general obligation bonds, including $9 billion for the initial planning and construction of an 800-mile high-speed rail system that would travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles in a little over two hours.

A 2008 study sponsored by the Reason Foundation and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation predicted that the promised total cost of $45 billion would quickly turn into $100 billion or more. “There are no genuine financial projections that indicate there will be sufficient funds,” the authors wrote.

However, the campaign for passage focused on the promise of that jaunt between Los Angeles and San Francisco, making the project look like a Ferrari at the cost of a used Ford Pinto.

We hate to say, “We told you so,” but exactly what we predicted has happened. After voters approved the project, the cost estimate was revised upward to $95 billion. Voters were told that private investors would pick up a share of the cost, but there were no private investors interested in sinking their money into the bullet train.

Then-Gov. Jerry Brown responded to public outrage by pressuring the High-Speed Rail Authority to cut back its plans and change to a “blended” approach, meaning part of the system would be high speed, and part would be conventional rail.

Gov. Gavin Newsom came into office in 2019 and seemed to acknowledge the project couldn’t be built as promised. But he doubled down anyway, and now taxpayers are funding the construction of a high-speed rail line between Merced and Bakersfield. Current plans call for passengers to take conventional rail from the Bay Area to Merced, and a bus from Bakersfield to Southern California.

But not all the money voters authorized has yet been appropriated by the Legislature. Talks between the governor and legislative leaders derailed in September over how to spend $4.2 billion remaining from the 2008 bond act.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority was seeking to have remaining bond funds appropriated for the segment of the bullet train in the San Joaquin Valley. Gov. Newsom supported that request, but lawmakers in the Assembly were hoping to divert some of the funding to projects in Southern California and the Bay Area. No agreement was reached, setting the stage for the two sides to fight about it again in January.

The original vision of a truly high-speed rail passenger train traveling eight-hundred miles at 220 mph to San Francisco from Los Angeles is now a convoluted journey consisting of a bus ride from L.A. to Bakersfield, 171-miles at high speed (maybe) from Bakersfield to Merced and a conventional train from Merced to San Francisco — and Californians are being told that this satisfies the voters’ intentions when they approved the 2008 bond measure. It’s not the delay in issuing $4.2 billion in remaining bond money that’s slowing the speed of the high-speed train. It’s the lies.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.