California High-Speed Rail Goes Way Off Track | Citizens Against Government Waste

California High-Speed Rail Goes Way Off Track

The WasteWatcher

When Californians voted in 2008 to provide $9.95 billion in taxpayer funds for the construction of a high-speed rail system that they were told would be done by 2020.  Three years after the original projected completion date, no routes have been finished.  To make matters worse, the latest cost estimate to complete just one section of the rail project, a 171-mile stretch between Bakersfield and Merced, exceeds the original cost estimate for the entire 800-mile project.

Since its inception, the high-speed rail project has been beset by a lack of transparency.  In 2009, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) released a report on the business plan for the rail system, which was supposed to have been released before voters considered the project at the polls.  The LAO found the plan lacked important details including information on train capacity, the point at which the project would break even, and where funding would come from.  That information likely would have made a difference in the vote to approve the initial $9.95 billion bond for the project.

The original plan would have connected Los Angeles to San Francisco, but completing just the Bakersfield-Merced line will cost $35 billion, higher than the original $33 billion budget for the entire system.  Completing a line between Los Angeles and San Francisco is now expected to cost $100 billion, three times greater than the initial projected budget for the entire project.  Of course, there is no timeline for when, if ever, a single line of the project might be completed.

To make matters worse, and the project even more expensive, the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s (CHSRA) February 2023 update reduced the initial estimate of future ridership by 25 percent.  The report noted, “Public transit in California and across the nation is down,” and the state is experiencing “more stagnant population growth” than initially expected.  With such a steep drop in anticipated ridership and continued population abandonment from the state thanks to its high taxes and burdensome regulations, these projections can only continue to get even more dire. 

Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) has reported on the multiple failures of the project since it was first approved.  A September 18, 2008, joint report by CAGW, the Reason Foundation, and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation noted that the project lacked “a comprehensive financing plan.”  On February 13, 2019, CAGW published a timeline detailing the progress, or lack thereof, of the project to that point.  At the time, CAGW President Tom Schatz observed that “California’s high speed rail fantasy quickly became a train to nowhere at taxpayer expense.”  Two years later, CAGW again reported on the failure of the project to get on track, despite projected costs rising to $100 billion, 23 percent higher than the $81 billion projected in CAGW’s joint report in 2008.  Now, the CHSRA estimates the entire project will cost $128 billion.

Given the state of rail travel in the United States, one could rightly wonder what, if any, merits the project had to begin with.  Long before high-speed rail received taxpayer support in 2008, the presumptive national passenger railroad Amtrak had been running significant deficits, and to date has still not turned a profit.  Given this history, the idea that travelers, especially in a state that is highly dependent on automobiles and has never had a successful or significant inter-city public transportation system outside of the airlines, would flock to a high-speed rail system in California was always a questionable notion.  Instead of pouring more money into a project that may never be completed, it’s time for California to stop railroading taxpayers and end the high-speed rail boondoggle.

California’s effort to construct a high-speed rail network was doomed from the start.  With no accountability and little transparency, it should come as no surprise that 15 years after approval, not even one line has been completed.  The Golden State’s high-speed rail debacle should serve as a warning to avoid pouring public funds into such transportation follies.

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