BULLET TRAIN COSTS SURGE AGAIN
California’s epic boondoggle, the high-speed rail project, will cost even more to build and will have millions fewer riders than previously projected.
That’s according to the latest report from the California High-Speed Rail Authority. The 2023 project update from agency officials blames the “impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on global supply chains and the resulting market instability and inflation” for an impact on the prices of construction materials and labor.
The rail authority now estimates that the complete 500-mile project will cost up to $128 billion. Not every state lawmaker is onboard. “Californians have lost faith in this project, and the Legislature has lost faith as well,” said Assembly Member Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield. Senate Minority Leader Brian Jones, R-Santee, posted on Twitter that “it’s time to pump the brakes on the hot mess express and defund” the bullet train.
Under the terms of Proposition 1A, the bond measure that launched the high-speed rail project in 2008, the bullet train must be able to operate without a public subsidy. However, the latest project update report indicates new challenges on that front. According to updated estimates of ridership, 31.3 million passengers are expected to take the bullet train between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2040. That’s about 7.3 million fewer than previously estimated.
The High-Speed Rail Authority pointed to lower population and employment growth forecasts, as well as a general decline in transit ridership in California, as the cause of the lower ridership projections. The agency claimed that despite the drop-off, high-speed rail between Merced and Bakersfield “will nearly double current rail ridership” between those cities.
Taxpayers may wonder if doubling the existing rail ridership between Merced and Bakersfield is worth the roughly $35 billion that the 171-mile “early operating segment” is now projected to cost. Experience suggests it could be even more by the time the segment is completed, estimated to happen by the end of 2030.
That’s a key date, because no ongoing funding has been identified for the construction of the rest of the project beyond 2030. Currently, construction of the bullet train is largely funded by the state’s “cap-and-trade” program, which requires utilities, refineries and other companies to buy permits to emit greenhouse gases. A 2014 law dedicated 25% of the revenue raised from selling the permits to building high-speed rail. However, the cap-and-trade program, which adds an estimated 23 cents to the price of a gallon of gasoline, expires in 2030.
In the High-Speed Rail Authority’s latest report, chief executive officer Brian Kelly, whose 2021 salary and benefits totaled more than $535,600, called on lawmakers to provide “an answer on how this project will be funded after 2030.” He wrote that “megaprojects that last for decades need long-term, stable funding.”
“Funding” is a word that government officials often use when what they really mean is “tax increase.”
You can count on the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association to be vigilant on this issue. Regardless of what it is called by high-speed rail proponents, we will fight against anything that raises the cost of living for Californians in order to extend the bullet train boondoggle.