Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Money Well Spent: Voters Want to Kill High Speed Rail, Millions in PR Dollars Notwithstanding

We always feel a little better about our fellow Californians at those moments when they break from form and reject big-government solutions to serious challenges. As a case in point, take the High Speed Rail project. Insofar as it promises years of union labor contracts paid for with borrowed money that sits outside the General Fund budget, Sacramento has put on a full-court press to get the project started, no matter what the obstacles. In recent months, however, two significant sets of problems have emerged. For one, the state's strategy of making budget cuts as painful and annoying as possible has made Californians suspicious of any calls for dramatically increased government spending. As the rail project's price tag has soared past $100 billion, taxpayers have rightly asked where all the money is supposed to come from. The second set of problems center around the fact that the project remains in the hands of the spectacularly incompetent High Speed Rail Authority. The first rule of asking someone to lend you $100 billion is this: you have to convince them that you know what you're doing. Yet in its brief history, HSRA put together the following record of accomplishments:
  1. Blowing through $250 million without putting an inch of track on the ground.
  2. Failing to comply with environmental regulations tied to receipt of federal funds, leading to:
  3. Proposing to begin the project with a multi-billion-dollar segment between Corcoran and Borden, two small Central Valley towns that few Californians can locate on a map.
  4. Having no plan for running trains on this segment.
  5. Having no plan for actually operating trains at any point.
  6. Failing to produce credible ridership forecasts.
  7. Alienating communities all over California, including San Diego, Palmdale, Kings County, and the San Francisco Peninsula.
  8. Discovering belatedly that its plan to run trains into San Jose won't work.
  9. Having no plan to obtain over 90% of the funds needed to complete the project.
As such, if the rail project is going to be built, taxpayers will be on the hook for pretty much all of the cost, because no sensible private investor is going to lend HSRA money.

Recently, we learned that the rail authority had spent some $9 million trying to improve its public image. Yet today it looks as though that money, like so much else HSRA has done, has gone to waste: according to the Sacramento Bee, some 64% of Californians now want a chance to revisit the 2008 vote that authorized the project. And nearly that many — 59% — want to shut it down.


  1. The public schoolteachers, police, fire, and especially, prison guards unions have real memberships paying real dues. In a showdown between them and the hypothetical HSRA union jobs, this should be a no-brainer.

  2. Well, HSR would be paid by bond debt, not through the general fund. So the "showdown" isn't direct. Of course, the cost of servicing the debt would be paid out of general fund dollars. But Sacramento has long operated under the assumption that bonds are free money.