A little more than a decade after California voters narrowly approved a ballot proposition to build an 800-mile high-speed rail system for $35 billion, with completion promised for next year, the project has been derailed by gross government incompetence and malfeasance.
The remarkable (and very public) beginning of the end for the state-run rail project occurred last Tuesday, when newly elected California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared in his state-of-the-state address that, “The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long. …there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to LA.”
So instead of build out a high-speed rail system that was promised to voters to span the length of the state, whisking travelers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in only 2 hours and 20 minutes, Gov. Newsom proposed completing a 140-mile segment of the route in the middle of state’s agricultural region, connecting Merced to Bakersfield.
Gov. Newsom didn’t directly admit to it, but among the reasons he had to scale back high-speed rail were competing budgetary priorities. The progressives who now control every lever of state government want to provide more government health coverage for 1.2 million illegal immigrants and more government housing for the working poor—programs that, if fully funded, would demand $4 billion or more from California’s budget (about what the rail project would need every year for more than 20 years to complete).
Gov. Newsom’s candid admission drew a rapid response from President Trump, who tweeted the following day,
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!”
And now, the formal federal response to the President’s tweet has arrived in the form of a letter from the Federal Railroad Administration to the California High-Speed Rail Authority declaring the federal government’s intent to terminate its agreement and de-obligate $929 million in unspent funds, while seeking to recover the $2.5 billion in federal funding already spent.
In ending the agreement, Ronald Batory, the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration noted that California wasn’t spending enough money to finish the project on schedule in 2022. Further, Batory wrote, the California High-Speed Rail Authority was consistently late in providing financial reports, observing that “…over 40 reports and deliverables are delinquent or do not contain the type of information or level of detail necessary” to allow the federal government to effectively oversee the project’s performance.
Upon receipt of the Federal Railroad Administration’s letter, Gov. Newsom declared that the whole thing was nothing more than retaliation from Pres. Trump for California’s lawsuit against the administration’s national emergency declaration for border security.
But the train’s problems have been years in the making.
Initially approved by the legislature in 2002, the $10 billion high-speed rail bond was pulled from the 2004 ballot over fears that voters in cash-strapped California wouldn’t approve the new debt. After being delayed again in 2006, the legislature placed the rail bond on the 2008 ballot, confident that, with Obama at the top of the ticket, enough voters in favor of the project would turn out. It passed with 52.6% of the vote.
Passage of the ballot initiative empowered the California High-Speed Rail Authority to award contracts to begin work. But, as with many voter-approved initiatives in California, the people’s elected representatives were virtually frozen out of any governance role. Gov. Newsom admitted as much in his state-of-the-state address when he said of the project, “There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.”
The project’s estimated costs quickly almost tripled from the $35 billion promised to the voters to $98 billion, prompting a scaling back of the ambitious plans. The train’s travel time slowed considerably as fiscal reality dictated a less-advanced design, while the estimated passenger ticket prices more than doubled, making the trip slower and more expensive than a direct flight on Southwest Airlines (cost: $59) from L.A. to San Francisco. In addition, since the system was promised to voters as not requiring taxes to build it or operate it, it forced the bureaucrats staffing it to gin up fantastical ridership projections, projecting that it would be used largely by commuters who would be willing to fork out $1,220 per month to support the train’s costs.
Further, the lack of oversight from elected officials increased the likelihood that sweetheart contract awards were made to the powerful and connected for financial, legal, and environmental consulting services, as well as to the trade unions and construction companies who made campaign contributions to pass the ballot initiative.
While Gov. Newsom may be complaining loudly about President Trump’s attack on his billions of dollars over-budget and years-late train, the fact is, Trump’s criticism may allow California a way out of spending billions more on a failed project.