California High-Speed Rail Faces Disapproval as Costs Rise

September 27, 2018 Updated: September 29, 2018

California’s high-speed rail project has faced increasing criticism recently by lawmakers and independent observers due to its extremely high cost, delays, and alleged corruption.

In 2008, voters approved Proposition 1A, which authorized the state to allocate $9.95 billion to build the high-speed rail. It also required matching federal funds.

The proposal promised to construct a high-speed rail system connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours and 40 minutes, as well as to link the state’s major population centers, including Sacramento, the Bay Area, the Central Valley, the Inland Empire, Orange County, and San Diego.

“Proposition 1A will bring Californians a safe, convenient, affordable, and reliable alternative to soaring gasoline prices, freeway congestion, rising airfares, plummeting airline service, and fewer flights available,” stated the argument in favor of 1A in the state’s voter guide.

The total estimated cost was $40 billion in 2008. In addition to the state and federal funds, private investments were expected to make up the remaining balance.

After Prop. 1A was approved, the state High-Speed Rail Authority issued a new total cost estimate of $98.5 to $118 billion.

The project received some federal funding through then President Obama’s 2009 Recovery Act, but Congress later withdrew future funding. However, construction on the project has continued.

Rising cost projections pose a serious problem for a state that, according to a study by the California Policy Center, was found to be $1.3 trillion in debt.

Former HSRA chairman Quentin Kopp, who introduced the legislation that established the rail line, has since withdrawn his support for the project, calling it “almost a crime.”

Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported that the project could cost billions of dollars more due to delays and inflation.

The Times reported that in order to complete the project by the 2033 deadline with a budget of $77 billion, the daily expenditure would have to reach $27 million in the next 4 years.

“That burn rate is ludicrous,” the article quoted civil engineer James Moore as saying. “It is so far outside standard experience that it doesn’t make sense to assume it will occur.”

Due to California’s complex terrain, geology-related engineering problems, and environmental reviews, many difficulties have been added to the project’s implementation. In addition, buying land to build the track and securing enough funding to continue construction have proved challenging for the rail authority.

According to the Los Angeles Times, if the project fails to meet its deadline in 2033, its cost is likely to be raised by as much as $2 billion every year afterward, since all postponed work would cost even more due to inflation and extended contracts with workers.

“One of the things that this program has experienced, which has not been good, is consistently projecting things to happen by certain dates, and it does not happen,” rail authority board member Michael Rossi said at a committee meeting, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Governor Jerry Brown remains one of the staunchest supporters of high-speed rail, one of the signature projects of his administration.

“I make no bones about it: I like trains, and I like high-speed trains even better,” Brown said this January in his State of the State address.

“Government does what individuals can’t do, like build roads and bridges and support local bus and light rail systems. This is our common endeavor by which we pool our resources through the public sector and improve all of our lives.”

While the private sector was originally expected to play a large part in the project, it is wary about investing in a project with so much risk.

This, along with the fact that the federal government has refused to put up funding, has left most of the burden on state and local governments.

Many have argued that instead of spending money on high-speed rail, the state would be better off using the funds to fix other problems, such as the housing crisis.

Meanwhile, private innovation has proved a formidable competitor to high-speed rail.

Elon Musk’s hyperloop project is advancing. The hyperloop is a pneumatic tube that would travel hundreds of miles in underground tunnels. Musk has predicted that eventually, riders will be able to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 30 minutes.