Remember the promise?
We were told in 2008 that if we approved a $10 billion bond investors would fall over themselves to pick up the rest of the tab so high-speed rail trains would be zipping between San Francisco and Los Angeles at 220 mph by 2020.
It would be a glorious time with 60 million people a year paying a relatively cheap $55 for one-way travel. High speed rail would serve as the catalyst for a revolutionary time of endless possibilities.
After events this week it does seem 2020 will indeed be a promised watershed year in California but not for the reasons extolled by the high-tech snake oil salesmen led us to believe.
Instead a movement is afoot to place a measure on the 2020 ballot to kill high speed rail. If that happens it will send shockwaves through Sacramento equal to the seismic shift Proposition 13 created in 1978.
Politicians back then, including Jerry Brown on his first go around as governor, didn’t believe voters would call their bluff. For years legislators had promised to reform the property tax system that was squeezing people out of their homes as out-of-control property value assessments were sending property tax bills sky high. And in the name of complete transparency — something that the high-speed rail folks apparently think are for suckers — no one was actually driven out of their home at the courthouse steps based on the inability to pay property taxes for five years.
But people who didn’t want to sell were forced to move out of communities they’d lived in all of their lives because they could no longer afford property taxes. Families were getting squeezed financially as the pre-Proposition 13 system put little constraint on rising property taxes. It wasn’t unusual for school districts, cities and counties to decide what they needed in a given year, look at all revenue and then note the shortfall before jacking up property tax rates to bridge the gap.
Thanks to half-truths, lack of transparency, Peter Pan perceptions sold as hard cold facts, and cold-faced reality the high-speed rail project has become the biggest target for taxpayer outrage in the annals of government boondoggles.
The $32 billion project that was supposedly going to snag upwards of $25 billion in private sector investment and was to be up and running in 12 years now has a price tag of $77 billion that likely will breach $100 billion by the time all is said and done.
And when November 2020 rolls around not only will the first 119-mile segment from the middle of nowhere to the middle of nowhere not even be completed but they likely will still have no clue how to pass under Pacheco Pass in earthquake country. Global experts on drilling problematic tunnels have warned it could cost in excess of $30 billion. That would blow the roof off of even a $100 billion cost estimate to get the first train rolling between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Politicians, of course, are counting on an old Texas political axiom to kick in: Once you start building a road even if you don’t have the money on hand to complete it, the public will demand that it be finished.
High speed rail lies still being boldly rolled out in Pollyanna fashion will likely help deliver Sacramento’s Waterloo moment when it comes to selling con jobs on mega-projects.
The train — if any of us live long enough to see it completed as promised — is going to probably take four hours to go between LA to San Francisco, will cost in excess of $100 to ride one way, and likely have ridership as robust as the Big Dipper at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The analogy is perfect as just like the Big Dipper, high speed rail is likely to be an amusement ride that figuratively takes California taxpayers for a ride.
The only thing truly high speed about the project is how it is burning through an average of $5 million a day. That’s $45 a year for every man, woman and child in California whether they are here legally or undocumented.
Given how the state can’t maintain infrastructure it already has whether it is dams, freeways, schools, levees — you name it, one would have to be strung out on acid to believe claims by high speed proponents that fares are going to cover the cost of operations and maintenance if trains ever do start running.
As it stands now, no major public railway can claim to be self-supporting via the fare box. Add to that the admission of substantially lower speeds than promised will mean California will have the slowest high-speed rail project in the world if it is ever finished. High speed rail will either leach money from education and other infrastructure to keep running or it will eventually join the long list of other crumbling infrastructure California can’t afford to maintain.
No sane person would take out a loan of $90 billion that you need to repay over 30 years with interest to bet on the Kings winning the NBA this season and that’s more of a possibility than high speed rail even delivering on one of its original promises.