California should cut its losses on high-speed rail

With each passing year, the light at the end of the tunnel for California’s high-speed rail project seems fainter.

It’s as if the train were on an uphill grade unable to gain any traction and slowly sliding backward, slipping further from needed funding and a completion date.

The reality is that the project has never been realistic. Fifteen years after it was put before voters, there’s still no path to completion. Costs keep rising, and now ridership projections for the system, if it ever opens, are declining sharply.

It’s time for state and federal officials to cut their losses, to stop throwing money at a project that probably will never be finished.

In 2008, when voters approved nearly $10 billion of state bond funding, they were promised bullet trains traveling at more than 200 mph from San Diego to San Francisco and Sacramento at a cost of $45 billion.

The estimate last week from Brian Kelly, the chief executive of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, places the cost at $106 billion, up from about $93 billion in the agency’s 2022 business plan. But that’s just for a system from San Francisco to Anaheim. And those numbers are likely to increase as environmental review of plans for the Los Angeles area is completed.

Voters were lured with suggestions that the project would attract private investment and federal funding. But there has been no private investment, and the federal contribution has thus far been minimal.

State money secured for the project through 2030, including the voter-approved bonds, is estimated at $21.5 billion. The federal government so far has kicked in $3.5 billion; Kelly is hoping for an additional $8 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure package President Biden signed in 2021.

Even if all that comes through, there would only be enough money to roughly cover the first section, a 171-mile link from Merced to Bakersfield. That link was estimated last year to cost about $23 billion. But with changes mandated by the Legislature last year and increased construction costs, the estimate is now about $30 billion-$33 billion.

In other words, cost estimates for the project have risen faster than new funding. When voters approved the bonds in 2008, the authority originally needed to find about $35 billion more to complete the project from San Diego to San Francisco and Sacramento. Today, the shortfall is about $81 billion just for a system from San Francisco to Anaheim. No one is talking about links to San Diego and Sacramento anymore.

In the Bay Area, there has been some funding provided for electrification of the CalTrain rails on the Peninsula that could theoretically carry high-speed trains. But there is no means to connect that to the Central Valley, much less Los Angeles.

At the same time, the state’s population is declining, and travel patterns are changing. As a result, the authority has lowered its ridership projections for high-speed rail in California.

For the Bakersfield-Merced section, the authority now forecasts 6.6 million riders a year, a 25% reduction from its estimates three years ago. Forecasts for ridership between Silicon Valley and the Central Valley have been trimmed to 11.5 million riders a year, a 38% reduction. And overall ridership for the system between San Francisco and Anaheim is now forecast at 31.2 million riders a year, down 19% from prior projections.

For his part, Kelly keeps pushing forward with planning for the project, hoping that funding will somehow be found. His optimism is admirable. But while “I think I can, I think I can” worked for The Little Engine That Could, it won’t be enough for high-speed rail.

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