Train to Nowhere: Full Speed Ahead
Vote for high-speed rail pushes California over a fiscal cliff.


John Fund

Sacramento, Calif. — It’s hard to express how sad it was for me to watch, in person, as the state I grew up in committed fiscal suicide.

I went down to the state capitol here on Friday afternoon to watch the state senate approve, by a single vote, a $4.7 billion bond package to build a high-speed-rail system from nowhere to nowhere. If the whole system is ever built — highly doubtful — it will cost at least $68 billion and run between Los Angeles and San Francisco. But this first 130-mile segment will run from Madera to Bakersfield, a stretch that less than 3 percent of the line’s potential ridership can use.

“Where [Governor Brown], with the state going bankrupt, is even thinking about an expenditure like this is beyond comprehension,” leading California demographer Joel Kotkin told the Wall Street Journal. “When the schools are falling apart, when the roads are falling apart, the bridges are unsafe, the state economy is in free fall. We’re still doing much worse than the rest of the country, we’ve got this growing permanent welfare class, and high-speed rail is going to solve this?”

The whole operation began in 2008, when voters narrowly approved $9.9 billion in bonds. It was a time when the estimated total cost was $33 billion and projections showed the project would be finished by 2020. The bond measure stipulated that the system must deliver passengers from the Bay Area to Los Angeles in 160 minutes or less.

Environmentalists and other opposition groups have made the 160-minute target impossible to meet, the costs have more than doubled, and the completion date has been pushed back to 2032 — and counting.

But there’s no stopping the runaway train. It’s full steam ahead, even though no one knows where all the money will come from after the nowhere-to-nowhere segment is completed, and even though Congress warns that builders shouldn’t count on more than a $3.3 billion down payment from Washington (a leftover from the 2009 stimulus bill).

The public has turned against the project because of concerns that it will never be finished and that it will line the pockets of government-linked business and union interests. A majority of voters want a re-vote, and 59 percent of Californians now oppose the project.

The state senate ignored the public on Friday, and the bill authorizing the bonds will be signed into law by Governor Brown, a big booster of the project. Before the senate vote, supporters waxed eloquent about the historic nature of the line. “How many chances do we have to vote on something that will inject a colossal stimulus into today’s economy while looking into the future far beyond our days in this house?” asked senate president Darrell Steinberg. “Do we have the ability to see beyond the challenges, the political point-scoring and controversies of today? Are we willing to take some short-term risk, knowing that the benefit to this great state will be, for centuries, enormous?”