by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
It’s been seven years since President Obama vowed to bring the U.S. the kind of high-speed train travel that China, Japan, and Europe have. His original stimulus bill envisioned several high-speed trains, but after the 2010 elections, the new GOP governors of Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin all said no to the federal money. They cited unreliable ridership estimates and future cost overruns that would be dumped on their states.
Only California, where no liberal boondoggle is ever too wasteful to reject, has charged ahead with its plan to build a train between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Voters in 2008 narrowly approved initial bonds to finance the project, but that was when it was projected to cost $33 billion and travel 220 miles per hour. Now it has lost the support of key figures such as Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, a likely successor to Governor Jerry Brown in 2018, and Quentin Kopp, former head of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Kopp says the current plan is a betrayal of what was approved by voters. He says it has morphed into a “slow-speed” project that is likely to cost upwards of $80 billion, or 40 times the federal government’s annual subsidy for all of Amtrak.
But train supporters refuse to give up. Last year, they broke ground on an initial 119-mile segment of the train’s route in the state’s sparsely settled Central Valley. The main reason they forged ahead with the ground-breaking was to avoid having to return Obama stimulus money, which the state had pledged to do if nothing was built. The first segment of track will run from Madera to Bakersfield, a stretch that fewer than 3 percent of the line’s potential ridership can use. It is essentially a train from nowhere to nowhere, ridden by almost no one.
Just last week, the Obama administration quietly approved a four-year “adjustment” in the initial segment’s construction schedule, admitting that it won’t be finished until 2022 at the earliest, rather than 2018 as originally planned.
But California’s embarrassment hasn’t stopped the Obama White House from continuing to push high-speed rail elsewhere. Last November, Vice President Joe Biden visited Dallas to tout a proposed high-speed-rail project between that city and Houston as a dramatic advance in transportation.