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The Train of Fools: California’s politicians keep the mother-of-all money pits rolling
Dennis Wyatt 2022
Dennis Wyatt

Train, train, train

Train, train, train
Train for fools

For 50 long years
I thought you were going somewhere
But I found out
I'm never going to ride your train

 Oh, you got me where you want me
I ain't nothing' but your fool
You keep misleading me

Oh, you burn up money


First, a thousand apologies to Aretha Franklin and John Fogerty as well as all of those who are honest hard working fools.

No honest people that contribute to society should ever be connected with the California High Speed Rail project even in a bad attempt at a song parody.

But here we are. It’s 2023.

California voters took the bait — hook, line and sinker — in 2008.

That’s when they approved the $9.9 billion bond measure known as Proposition 1A.

Back then the powers-that-be in Sacramento said the entire 520-mile section between Los Angeles and San Francisco would be completed by 2029 for $33 billion.

Today — in an announcement from the California High Speed rail Authority that got scant attention earlier this month because time delays and high cost increases are so routine they are no longer news — the first 117-mile segment now won’t be completed until 2033. And it will be at a cost of $35 billion.

That’s $3 billion more than Californians were told was needed to complete the LA-to-SF segment that would actually carry passengers from somewhere to somewhere else.

Now, the initial 520-mile system will cost an estimated $128 billion.

That excludes promised legs to San Diego, Palmdale, and Sacramento.

It also doesn’t include what engineering experts said are “serious engineering risks” that haven’t been considered for mountain tunnels.

One such tunnel goes through the Tehachapi Mountains. The other goes through the Coastal Range via Pacheco Pass west of Los Banos.

The Pacheco Pass tunnel also happens to go right through the state’s most notorious earthquake zone — the San Andreas Fault.

And to be honest, it is actually worse than it sounds.

Governor Gavin Newsom in 2019 unveiled a construction plan that broke the initial 520-mile system into  three segments.

The first segment was 171 miles through the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.

The segment from Merced to Bakersfield was picked because it was the easiest to build and the quickest that could get started and not risk being forced to return what little federal funding the project had secured.

It would be up and running, Californians were told, by 2030 at a cost of $22.8 billion

Costs have now gone up 50 percent with the completion date pushed back to 2033.

Defenders of high speed rail that push back against the labeling of the Merced to Bakersfield segment as “The Train to Nowhere”, like to point out how impressive that feat will be.

Amtrak, they note, now runs seven daily roundtrips between those two cities with travel time pegged at three hours.

High speed rail would make 18 daily roundtrips with travel time clashed to 90 minutes.

Keep in mind this is costing $33 billion to connect Merced — a city the size of Manteca — with Bakersfield. In case you are interested Bakersfield is a city with 85,000 more residents than Stockton.

Underwhelming by anyone’s standards.

The state has no inkling where the other $100 billion is coming from to make the system robust enough where there might actually be ridership to cover at least some portion of the ongoing operation and maintenance costs.

It is why many California leaders who once enthusiastically backed high speed rail have become staunch foes. They now advocate pulling the plug before it creates the mother-of-all money pits to withstand the ages in the record books of bloated government spending.

In 2012, then Gov. Jerry Brown threw down the gauntlet to counter such talk in his State of the State Address by implying that those who oppose high speed rail essentially don't believe California has a bright and growing future.

Given population declines, the only thing growing today on a statewide basis is the burden all Californians must bear forever of expanding high speed rail costs.

As for high speed rail making the future bright, apparently it is from the glow of the flames burning through billions and billions of dollars.

Amid all the rhetoric, one question hadn't been answered: Just who are the Californians who will ride high speed rail? That is a much different question than projected ridership numbers since it speaks to the viability of high speed rail as a mass transit system.

If the state rail system was a true commuter line like the ACE version it would have a more dependable ridership pool to draw from.

Obviously people who want to go from downtown Los Angeles to downtown San Francisco and vice versa — think corporate types and political animals — will see high speed rail as a viable and reasonably priced alternative.

But what if you're a working class or even part of the struggling portion of the middle class, would you take your family of four on high speed rail to go to Disneyland or visit relatives in Los Angeles?

Given that four tickets from north to south will likely cost $130 a pop now in 2023 dollars that $1,040 right off the bat for just part of the travel.

You also have to get from the LA station to your ultimate destination. That means taking surface transit, hailing a cab, or renting a car.

 If you want to go to multiple destinations on your own schedule in LA that means a cab, Uber, Lyft, or a rental car. That costly scenario — which probably is real to the lion's share of Californians — starts making $6 and even $7 a gallon gas look reasonable when it comes to driving from the north state to LA.

This is not a grand public works project such as freeways, dams, water canals, and such that ultimately touches the lives of almost every Californian in a positive manner.

 Instead, this is a massive public works project that will provide only a reasonable amount of uptick in jobs for the short term and will be accessed primarily by folks who can afford to pick up what isn’t covered by a  heavily taxpayer subsidized fare tab.