The question posed by the unfolding California high-speed rail cataclysm is why the reaction to it should be a partisan or ideological issue at all. Are human beings capable of managing bias and learning hard truths from new information, or aren’t they?
High speed rail was promoted in California as a green and virtuous way to propel commuters from San Francisco to Los Angeles along at 220 miles an hour, completing the trip in a about two and a half hours. It was going to involve minimal tax-payer cash, with billions arriving from private investors. It would be profitable, not requires state subsidies and be much less expensive than flying. Thus enthused and enlightened, 53.7 percent of approved the plan and a $9.95 billion bond.
It was a scam, a hustle, and a pack of lies. Virginia Postrel writes at Bloomberg…
“California’s high-speed rail project increasingly looks like an expensive social science experiment to test just how long interest groups can keep money flowing to a doomed endeavor before elected officials finally decide to cancel it. What combination of sweet-sounding scenarios, streamlined mockups, ever-changing and mind-numbing technical detail, and audacious spin will keep the dream alive?”
Well said. I would add, “And will anyone learn from this fiasco?” Specifically, will anyone learn that ideologically-driven officials will always press policies in defiance of reality, if the public lets them, or more precisely, trusts them.
The Los Angeles Times published a stunning report on how corrupt this enterprise has been from the start. Here’s sample:
When a Spanish firm submitted a bid last year to help build the California bullet train, it cautioned that taxpayer money probably would be needed to keep the system operating.Having reviewed data on 111 high-speed train lines around the world, construction giant Ferrovial said, it found that all but three could not make ends meet.
“More than likely, the California high speed rail will require large government subsidies for years to come,” the proposal said.
That warning, however, was expunged from the version of Ferrovial’s proposal posted on the state’s website. The only record of it was on a data disk provided to The Times and others under a public records act request.
The state rail authority repeatedly has asserted that it will not need a subsidy and that every high-speed system in the world operates without taxpayer assistance — despite significant evidence to the contrary. A number of projects around the world have failed financially, others require direct operating subsidies and many more benefit from government taxes and regulations on competing airline and highway systems, according to audits, studies and interviews. But in asking taxpayers to help build the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line, officials assured the state would be able to pay the operating costs purely from the system’s revenues — and thus not sap money needed for social services, education or other projects.
That’s right: the state, which was and is in dire financial straits, wanted to plunge ahead with an expensive project requiring ongoing subsidies, but knew that the public wouldn’t support it if the truth were known. So it redacted the facts the public wouldn’t like. Then, the paper reminds its readers, just last April rail authority Chairman Dan Richard assured skeptical legislators during a hearing that all the numbers were sound. When one assemblyman asked Richard, “Do you know of any high-speed rail operations around the world that make substantial profit?”, the answer was “Actually all of them, virtually all of them, make operating profit.” Well, that was almost right. In fact, virtually none of them make a profit. Moreover…
“A study of international high speed rail systems by four Silicon Valley financial experts — including Stanford University emeritus professor Alain Enthoven and former World Bank executive William Grindley — found that California’s system could be among the worst performing in the world. Its prospective fares would be the lowest on a per-mile basis, driven by a need to compete with the state’s cutthroat airline market. The California bullet train could only be profitable if it also had the world’s lowest per-mile costs, roughly one-fourth the typical European system, the report said. But given the costs of doing business in California, that is not likely, Grindley said.”
Now the total construction cost estimate for this likely-to-stink-under-the-most-optimistic-projections rail system has more than doubled to $68 billion from the original $33 billion estimate, while the extent of the project has been cut: double the money for less rail. The first and least expensive segment of the system through a relatively empty stretch of the Central Valley is now four years behind schedule. The estimated cost of tickets to travel by rail from L.A. to the San Francisco have increased 60%, to more than $80.
It’s ironic that the Times is now slamming the project, as the Times was an ally of the duplicity, writing in an editorial in 2008,
“There’s something undeniably alluring about a bullet train—the technology is so powerful, the speed so breathtaking, it makes quotidian trips seem exotic…Proponents of Proposition 1a, which would authorize $9.95 billion in bonds for a high-speed rail line connecting Northern and Southern California, think it would be wildly successful. They predict the line could draw 117 million riders a year by 2030, compared with 3 million now taking the high-speed Amtrak train in the densely populated Boston-Washington corridor. And they say it will turn a billion-dollar profit by then even as it keeps ticket prices remarkably low. The projections by the measure’s opponents, led by the libertarian Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, are much less sanguine and more persuasive…we still think voters should give in to the measure’s gleaming promise.”
In other words, don’t confuse us with facts, our mind’s made up-–the motto of the ideologically driven. Those minds, or many of them, just never change, either, no matter how clear the signs are. Three years later, as the complete fraud of the projects promotion to the public was becoming clear, the Times editors refused to admit that the project was a mistake, editorializing:
“Yes, the price tag has tripled and its completion date is 13 years later. But it’s still a gamble worth taking.”
Why is it worth taking? Because wouldn’t it be great it it worked, even though all evidence says it won’t and can’t!
In other words, “Imagine.”