Column: Crazy train

If there is one thing Californians can’t resist, it’s being chic. And during the 2008 election cycle, high-speed rail was the political equivalent of a pair of six-inch Louboutin stilettos. That year, politicians from Barack Obama to Arnold Schwarzenegger relentlessly pitched trains as the sure-bet investment of the future. Enticed by rosy predictions of low costs and a revolutionized transportation system, Californians ponied up $9 billion to begin a rail project that would cement California’s status as a progressive (and hip) “big thinker” in transportation.

Since then, high-speed rail has become considerably less hip. The price tag has quadrupled, profit projections have dwindled, and red tape and legal battles have enmeshed the project in a cocoon of futility. The project has even garnered the unofficial nickname “The Boondoggle.” And as if the whole situation was not lackluster enough, the initial section of track will be laid between Fresno and Bakersfield — a train to nowhere.

Strangely (I’m being facetious here), most California politicians don’t seem to be grasping the problem. Unlike the voters (who, according to recent polls would reject the project 59 percent to 31 percent if a revote were held), Governor Brown and his mostly Democratic allies are standing firmly behind The Boondoggle. Of course, with his union allies hoping to get a slice of the pie when it comes to lucrative building contracts, Brown’s position is politically shrewd. In his “State of the State” address, the Governor trumpeted the project as visionary, and pledged to support it despite the state’s always-looming financial Armageddon.

But if the politicians won’t make the hard choices, mathematics will. Californians voted to approve $9 billion in seed money for the project in 2008. At that time, estimates placed the cost of high-speed rail at approximately $25 billion, with completion scheduled for 2020. Since then, cost estimates have ballooned to over $100 billion, and the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) has intimated that $117 billion could be required, depending on the route. The completion date has been pushed back to 2033.  And while the original estimate included Sacramento and San Diego in the line, the new estimate is only for a San Francisco to Anaheim route.

Current funding for the project consists of $9 billion approved by taxpayers and approximately $3.5 billion in federal money, leaving a shortfall of $85 to 100 billion dollars. That’s a lot of money regardless of the circumstances, but the number looms especially large when you are broke, as is the State of California. According to Governor Brown, the state faces a $9.2 billion deficit in the upcoming year. Worse still, the State Budget Solutions’ (SBS) annual state deficit analysis found that California’s total debt is a stunning $612 billion.

While the CHSRA claims that the trains would be profitable once completed, there is good reason to be skeptical. As reported in the LA Times, only two high-speed rail lines in the world — Tokyo to Osaka and Paris to Lyon — are currently profitable. And both traverse areas of higher density than the Central Valley.

With one of the worst business climates in the nation, and the ongoing exodus of skilled workers, state revenues are unlikely to increase substantially in the near future. The effects of California’s destitution are easily visible, as schools, pension funds, and the UC system are gutted to fill the gaps. But even though the state can’t afford the essential functions of government, supporters of high-speed rail apparently think that we should spend billions we don’t have to build a train to nowhere. California should consider the advice of SNL’s Chris Parnell: “Don’t buy stuff you cannot afford!”

Unfortunately, the entire high-speed rail debacle says something about the way California does politics — and it’s not flattering. All too often, voters and politicians in this bluest of blue states vote for bills and propositions based on their sexiness, not their practicality. High-speed rail sounded sleek, progressive and cutting edge, so like an impulse shopper at the mall, Californians were all too willing to put it on the card without checking the price tag. Ken Button, a transportation specialist at George Mason University, put it succinctly: “Californians have a tradition of committing funds first and thinking about who will pay later.”

High-speed rail may be progressive chic, but underneath, it’s just another big-government spending project destined for insolvency. Struggling to fulfill its basic obligations, the state really can’t afford to spend money it doesn’t have.  Perhaps it’s time to make fiscal responsibility fashionable again.

SAM HOEL can be reached at samhoel@gmail.com.

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