Stunning Shift on High Speed Rail

Nothing epitomizes the abject failure of California governance more than the so-called High Speed Rail Project or as it has been derisively labeled High Speed Fail.

To recap in 2008 voters narrowly approved a $10 billion down payment for the construction of a high speed rail network between the Bay Area and Los Angeles that promoters said would cost a total of $33.6 billion. A year later the High Speed Rail Authority the governing body overseeing the project revealed that the train would actually cost $42.6 billion. Later that estimate exploded to $98.5 billion three times the original cost projection.

Even the project’s more ardent supporters have expressed dismay at the mismanagement and lack of transparency at the High Speed Rail Authority. Particularly galling has been the failure of the Authority to advance a credible business plan. Its efforts in this regard have been amateurish at best and at worse slick salesmanship with no substance.

It is truly sad — and unnecessary — that we’re at this point. Prior to the 2008 vote the Reason Foundation and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation sponsored “A Due Diligence Study” of the HSR plan which found the high speed train would cost much more than promised possibly as much as $100 billion or even more.

Corroborating the HJTF/Reason study more recent reviews by the University of California and Legislative Analyst’s Office have cast further doubts on the feasibility of project.

If this project were wholly within the purview of the private sector it would have been terminated long ago. When private capital is at stake there is a time at which responsible business managers grasp the folly of pouring good money after bad. Not so in the public sector — particularly as it relates to so-called “mega-projects.” Indeed the strategy of the Authority is transparent: No matter how little sense this project makes if they break ground and invest millions (or billions) California will have no choice but to complete the project.

Californians may have had enough of this foolishness. All available polling on the issue of High Speed Rail reveals that if the measure were on the ballot today it would fail. In short the citizens of California want a “do-over.” The cost is too high the projections of ridership speed and convenience were fantasy (and everyone knows it) and in the current recession there are so many more deserving places to send scarce taxpayer dollars.

Now in a last ditch effort to save this boondoggle from an almost certain death the authority announced at the end of last week that it has reduced the projected cost to about $68 billion. But they do this by changing the fundamental nature of the project which was sold to California voters as a standalone project with dedicated rails and stations. Although not entirely clear it appears that the Authority is melding the HSR system with traditional rail.

Does this make sense from the perspective of rational transportation policy? Probably not. But the bigger problem for the Authority is that it is running out of options and there is very little time to study the latest iteration before the Authority asks for bond financing from the Legislature.

What is undeniable about the latest plan is that it is most certainly not the project that the voters approved three years ago. For that reason everyone — including HSR proponents and detractors — should get behind the effort by Senator Doug LaMalfa to put the issue back before the public with a more realistic cost and performance projections.

In this era where both taxpayer dollars and Legislative credibility are in short supply Californians are entitled to nothing less.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.