The narrow passage of a nearly $10 billion high speed rail plan in California marked a triumph of pay-to-play ballot box corporate cronyism—otherwise known in politics as pork.
Groups ranging from train manufacturers to multinational construction companies to trade unions brought the government train idea to the California Legislature back in the mid-1990s. Initially intended for the ballot in 2004, the proposition was delayed and delayed again, as opinion polling showed the costly plan would get a chilly reception by the state’s voters.
Only in 2008, with Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee for president, did the liberal leadership in the California Legislature feel confident enough to put the project on the ballot for the November election. It passed with 52.6% of the vote.
Proponents made some big promises to get the voters to approve $9.95 billion in bonds (funny figure, that $9.95 billion, so close to $10 billion—no doubt focus group tested). In the official ballot pamphlet, supporters claimed that the,
“…800-mile High-Speed Train network that will relieve 70 million passenger trips a year that now clog California’s highways and airports—WITHOUT RAISING TAXES… Electric-powered High-Speed Trains running up to 220 miles an hour… Travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in about 2½ hours for about $50 a person… Matching private and federal funding to be identified BEFORE state bond funds are spent… (And) 90% of the bond funds to be spent on system construction, not more studies, plans, and engineering activities.”
As it turns out, none of these promises were legally enforceable—which is good, because all of them turned out not to be true.
With only about a quarter of the $80.3 billion in funding needed to complete the project identified, chances are high that the train will only run in California’s Central Valley, from Merced in the north, 171 miles to Bakersfield in the south—with plain old bus service completing the connection to San Francisco and Los Angeles, making the 800 mile trip slower than flying or even driving down the I-5.
That was Gov. Gavin Newsom’s intent as set out in his first state-of-the-state address in February 2019 when he said with uncharacteristic candor,
“Next, let’s level about High-Speed Rail. I have nothing but respect for Gov. Brown’s and Gov. Schwarzenegger’s ambitious vision. I share it… 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 LA. I wish there were. However, we do have the capacity to complete a high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield.”
Defenders of the train called this a “slip of tongue.” But Newsom’s remarks were in the context of a formally delivered official speech from prepared remarks—hardly extemporaneous comments at a press conference. In the short span of 60 seconds, Newsom effectively called an 800-mile high-speed rail line the dream of two old politicians—Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown. And, in Brown’s case, a dream that had morphed into an intensely personal monument to his ego that he defended at all costs (not with his own money, of course).
But Newsom’s decision not to throw more good billions after bad immediately ran into the politics of pride. If California does nothing else during the Trump years, it must lead the Resistance.
Thus, when President Trump tweeted out the day after Newsom’s speech that, “California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project after having spent and wasted many billions of dollars. They owe the Federal Government three and a half billion dollars. We want that money back now. Whole project is a ‘green’ disaster!”
Exactly one week after Newsom’s remarkable surrender to reality, the Trump Administration’s Federal Railroad Administration sent a letter to the California High-Speed Rail Authority informing it that the federal agency was immediately moving to “de-obligate the full $928,620,000 obligated under the Agreement,”—meaning the unallocated portion of the roughly $3 billion committed by the federal government—with the more than $2 billion in federal money already spent subject to “recovery” due to the fact that California wasn’t going to build the project they said they were going to build.
This move demanded a response from Newsom, who couldn’t be seen as capitulating to Trump. So, California launched a lawsuit seeking to block the Trump administration from taking back its $929 million.
But even the Resistance comes at a price. California’s insatiable need for tax money, some of which is intended to provide services to people, rather than enrich politically-connected multinational corporations, has driven California State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon to call to shift government revenue from the high-speed rail project to urban areas. Before his election, Rendon, for a time, ran a nonprofit that provided child development and medical services in Los Angeles County. He may see such needs as more immediately pressing than throwing more billions at a train that might serve a fraction of the state’s upper-income residents just to spite Trump.
In two months, what is said to be the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s final plan will come before lawmakers in Sacramento. It will likely call for further borrowing against future revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade program to finance a portion of the project, with funding for some $60 billion in required construction costs yet unidentified. And, contrary to the promises made to the voters in 2008, it will still not have a penny in private financing.
Over the span of 25 years, California’s $80 billion high-speed rail project has devolved from a pork barrel bonanza to a monument to an old politician’s ego to a symbol of Trump resistance—and it still has yet to carry a single passenger.