Please, Governor, don’t derail the bullet train derailment

Even before California’s High Speed Rail bond proposal appeared on the ballot in November 2008, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association commissioned a study in conjunction with the Reason Foundation because of deep concerns about the project’s viability. The study, published in September 2008, just prior to the election, confirmed our worst fears. Specifically, the executive summary of the nearly 200-page document warned:

“The CHSRA plans as currently proposed are likely to have very little relationship to what would eventually be built due to questionable ridership projections and cost assumptions, overly optimistic projections of ridership diversion from other modes of transport, insufficient attention to potential speed restrictions and safety issues and discounting of potential community or political opposition. Further, the system’s environmental benefits have been grossly exaggerated, especially with respect to reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that have been associated with climate change.”

In the ensuing decade, it became increasingly clear that every negative prediction about the project came to be realized. Even initial advocates of the project, including a former chairman of the High Speed Rail Authority, turned against the costly boondoggle.

The capstone of criticism came at the end of 2018 when California’s own state auditor issued a scathing report excoriating the project’s mismanagement, waste and lack of transparency. To understand just how damning the HSR audit was, just consider the subtitle: “Flawed Decision Making and Poor Contract Management Have Contributed to Billions in Cost Overruns and Delays in the System’s Construction.

Despite this horrific history, former Gov. Jerry Brown, unions and construction companies exerted considerable political force to keep the project alive through a constant flow of disinformation and a concerted effort to suppress the truth about the nature and scope of the problems. But eventually, the $6 million per day cost caused even some of the most progressive elements in California politics to question the commitment.

Finally, facing the reality that California, despite its prodigious wealth, could not continue to throw good money after bad, the state’s new governor dropped a bombshell during his State of the State address: “But let’s be real. The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and 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.”

The significance of Newsom’s statement was recognized immediately by everyone even remotely familiar with HSR. It is certain that the announced retrenchment caused near coronaries among HSR advocates, particularly those with huge financial stakes in the project.

For that reason, few were surprised that Newsom backtracked on his initial statement. The governor’s office issued a statement saying that he is fully committed to building a high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles. And later, Newsom himself tweeted saying “We’re going to make high-speed rail a reality for CA. We have the capacity to complete the rail between Merced and Bakersfield. We will continue our regional projects north and south. Finish Phase 1 enviro work. Connect the Central Valley to other parts of the state.”

Stand in line if you’re confused about the inconsistent statements. Undoubtedly, the same powerful forces that have kept the project free from meaningful oversight for a decade are working overtime to keep the money flowing.

Even if Newsom decides that walking away from the entire project isn’t in the state’s best interests and that the existing infrastructure can be repurposed for more traditional rail, he would be well advised to maintain a trainload of skepticism and follow through with his promise for real — not fake — transparency.

Such scrutiny over HSR is way, way overdue and taxpayers are confident that any future objective analysis will confirm what we’ve been saying for 10 years: high-speed rail is simply not viable in California.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.