In his State of the State address, Governor Gavin Newsom dropped a bombshell about California’s High Speed Rail project, which many people interpreted as portending a cancellation. His words were vague and uncertain, much like the project itself.
On one side, the AP reported that he is canceling high-speed rail beyond the segment between Bakersfield and Merced. The LA Times headline called it scaling back. The Washington-based Eno Center for Transportation, which promotes transportation alternatives including public transit, analyzed the Governor's announcement as “basically an admission that he didn’t want to go through the charade of pretending to identify the $65 billion that the Golden State needs to find.” USC Professor Lisa Schweitzer interpreted the Governor’s announcement as an admission that high-speed rail is a low priority for him, unlike housing.
On the other hand, Newsom’s chief of staff Ann O'Leary said the Governor is “fully committed to high speed rail.” Sen. Scott Wiener agrees with O'Leary, saying, “The press is inaccurately reporting that Governor Newsom is killing high-speed rail to the Bay Area and Los Angeles. That’s not true. He said we must focus on completing the Central Valley segment and then move forward from there. The Bay Area and Los Angeles must be – and will be—part of California’s high-speed rail network.”
Is California High-Speed Rail still happening? And if it's dead, then why? The reasons have to do with the cost blowouts, which in turn are due to the political origins of the project. In short, nobody cared about cost control because it was always about taking credit for visible construction more than about improving the state's transportation network.
What Newsom Actually Said
There is a transcript of the entire speech available, but we’ll do our best to conduct a close reading of Governor Newsom’s words here. On the one hand, the Governor says: “Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A. I wish there were.” On the other hand, he defends the segment to be constructed in the Central Valley: “we do have the capacity to complete a high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield.” He refers to the Central Valley economy as polluted but dynamic, ready for high-speed rail to transform it.
The language in the speech is a dramatic shift from the High-Speed Rail Authority's past statements. Facing criticism that building within the Central Valley was a “train to nowhere,” the Authority never said that the Central Valley segment was sufficient on its own; it called it an initial construction segment and distinguished it from an initial operating segment connecting to either the Los Angeles Basin or the Bay Area.
Between the “let's be real” language and the Governor's defense of construction in the Central Valley, it is likely that he is seriously scaling back the project. He speaks of the urgent need to build the tracks between Bakersfield and Merced, but defers the rest of the project to funding sources that he knows are unlikely to materialize: “federal funding and private dollars,” which the Authority spent a decade trying and failing to obtain.
No discussion of American transportation is complete without looking at the elevated costs of capital construction. This problem most infamously afflicts subways in New York, but is really a national problem for urban rail, even for light rail. The original construction cost estimates for California High-Speed Rail seemed reasonable: $33 billion for around 490 miles in 2008 dollars. This is above average by European standards, but not outlandishly so: Germany and the Netherlands build high-speed rail lines for about that cost per-mile. The complex tunneling required to get across the mountains between Los Angeles and the Central Valley and then again between the Central Valley and San Francisco certainly justifies a higher cost than for French high-speed lines built without any tunnels.
However, cost overruns mounted quickly. In 2011, the new business plan found that the real costs would be double those promised to the voters in 2008. The segments crossing the mountains showed the highest escalation, as further engineering revealed more tunneling would be required than originally anticipated. The segment from San Francisco to San Jose had a very high escalation as well, caused by additional tunnels required due to agency turf battles between the High-Speed Rail Authority, Caltrain, and BART, such as a $1.9 billion tunnel in Millbrae that would not be required were BART willing to let go of its oversize station.
The Authority responded by progressively compromising the design of the system. It did not deal with the agency’s governance turf problems in the Bay Area, but postponed them to a later date by effectively slowing intercity trains to the speed of an express electrified Caltrain run, ensuring the train would take far longer than the advertised 2 hours and 38 minutes between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It did not change the alignments across the mountains even though cheaper ones were available, because of political pressure in both Northern and Southern California.
Even in the Central Valley, where the initial cost overrun was limited, the problems continued. The initial plan was to use existing rail rights-of-way, going right through the centers of small towns. But noise emissions at 220 mph are extensive, and nowhere in the world do high-speed lines go through cities that they do not even serve. Only in Japan do high-speed lines even go at full speed through city centers (served by local but not express trains), and Japan spends considerable effort on designing both the trains and the trackside infrastructure to reduce noise.
The Authority realized this too late, and changing the alignment at the last moment to swerve around unserved small towns in the Central Valley led to conflict with farmers over land acquisition, which is a more contentious process in the United States than elsewhere.
Elizabeth Alexis, of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CAARD), fought the cost overruns early. Already in 2011, as the cost overruns were published, she warned that the Authority outsourced critical design, engineering, and supervision to companies that would also bid on building the system, creating a conflict of interest. She testified in front of Congress that “the multiple layers of consultants have made communication difficult and limited flexibility.”
In response to the Governor's announcement, she noted that the construction costs between Wasco and Madera had risen to $12 billion, or $100 million per mile, about 1.5 times more than the highest cost we have ever observed for an above-ground non-American high-speed line (namely, the nearly all-aerial Beijing-Shanghai route).
The cost overruns could be prevented through better public oversight, but no such oversight has been forthcoming since the project first came into existence.
A Train to… Where?
The California High-Speed Rail project was compromised from the start by board members who were more interested in building an Ozymandias in their respective regions than in improving statewide connectivity.
Nonetheless, many of the problems were and still are fixable. The Authority could make deals with Central Valley farmers to defuse tensions and reduce land acquisition costs. In France, where farmers are more politically aggressive than in the United States, high-speed rail construction involves land swap deals and slow, painstaking compensation agreements. It could hire more in-house engineers to supervise the contractors. It could change the alignment decisions toward cheaper as well as faster routes. It could also work out deals with Caltrain and BART here in the Bay Area, and with Metrolink in Los Angeles, to share infrastructure to reduce costs.
At no point has the Authority done anything to curb costs, because that would require it to prioritize the completion of the project over parochial political concerns.
At most, it reduced headline costs by curbing its overall scope, first cutting Anaheim from the first phase and then slowing the trains in the Bay Area. As it became clear that the project was tens of billions in the red, with no private investment and too little federal funding, there was no incentive to build anything on-time or on-budget. The promised train from Los Angeles to San Francisco would not materialize in the lifetimes of the people in charge.
The Governor himself was not involved in the poor decisions made before his election, but has shown little interest or aptitude in fixing them. He is joined by a line of moderate Republican Governors like Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, who prefers sandbagging necessary public projects to managing them, and New Jersey’s Chris Christie, who canceled the bloated ARC tunnel to New York instead of managing it better to improve its design and limit its cost overruns.
The best thing that can be said about Governors like Baker, Christie, and Newsom is that they recognize their own limitations. It is likely that they are reluctant to undertake big rail infrastructure projects because they know the risks of failure are very high, and they could instead reap the rewards of mediocrity. In both New Jersey and Massachusetts the transit managers appointed by the Republican Governors were political hacks rather than the promised turnaround experts. One of Baker's appointees had dodged a fraud lawsuit from his private-sector days.
Governor Newsom could show that he’s a forward-thinking leader by rescuing California High-Speed Rail from itself and the Authority's mistakes. Instead, he is rapidly showing himself to be cut from the same timid cloth as any number of blue state Republicans. He does not appear interested in building the infrastructure required for carbon-free intercity transportation within the state; instead, he pretends that building just between Bakersfield and Merced is a brave step forward while downgrading the rest to Phase Will-Never-Happen.
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