In 2008, California voters approved a bond for a high-speed rail line connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles with the fast-growing cities in the state’s Central Valley. With trains running at 220 miles per hour on dedicated tracks, California High-Speed Rail (CAHSR) would be the first true high-speed rail line in the U.S. The project’s backers, including Governor Jerry Brown, promised that CAHSR would cost just $33 billion and be finished by 2022, including extensions to Sacramento and San Diego. It would whisk passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in two hours and 40 minutes—fast enough, if European experience is a guide, to convince most air travelers on that route to take the train instead.
Ten years later, supporters have ample cause to reconsider. CAHSR’s costs have severely escalated: the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) now estimates that the train’s core segment alone, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, will cost from $77 billion to $98 billion. Promises that private investors would cover most of the costs have fallen through. Forecasts for the project’s completion date and travel times have also slipped. The fastest trains in the CHSRA’s current business plan have a running time of over three hours, and the first segment of the line—San Jose to Bakersfield, almost 200 miles short of completion—won’t open until 2029.
The project’s troubles have been largely self-inflicted, starting with poor route choices. At the south end of the line, from the Central Valley to Los Angeles, rather than proceeding in a direct route from Los Angeles to the northwest through Tejon Pass, roughly along Interstate 5, the planned line takes a detour to the northeast through Palmdale, a rapidly growing exurb, and enters the Central Valley through Tehachapi Pass. The CHSRA justified this choice by arguing that the Tejon route would require more tunnels and slow curves and be more vulnerable to earthquakes.
But in a convincing independent analysis, aerospace engineer and transportation activist Clem Tillier has called the CHSRA’s study of the Tejon alternative “a finely crafted web of distortions.” The study, Tillier wrote, used skewed assumptions guaranteed to produce a poor Tejon route. Most notably, the CHSRA supposed that no route could cross a planned residential development in a key portion of Tejon Pass. The CHSRA instead produced a Tejon alignment that veered around the development with sharp curves and six extra miles of tunnel, even though the additional tunnel would cost more than buying the entire development outright. Tillier concluded that a better Tejon alignment would save 12 minutes of travel time and $5 billion in construction costs over Tehachapi. These 12 minutes could make a critical difference to ridership, as most studies have found that trains rapidly lose riders to airplanes for journeys longer than about three hours. Speculation that the interests of real-estate developers rather than riders motivated the Tehachapi detour is hard to dismiss.
The CHSRA has also wasted large sums of money through poor management. Tillier has detailed how the Authority plans to spend billions to outfit Bay Area stations with unnecessary tunnels and viaducts, rather than making elementary improvements to operations. A state audit has shown that the CHSRA knowingly incurred massive additional cost risks by starting construction prematurely; desperate to show progress and to meet a deadline for federal funds, the CHSRA began construction in the Central Valley without buying all the land it needed, or even completing negotiations with the freight railroads whose rights-of-way it planned to use. The state auditor also criticized the CHSRA for hiring expensive consultants, over the objections of its former CEO, to do routine budgeting work.
Some of the worst revelations in the state auditor’s report concern basic failures of contract management. The CHSRA paid contractors without inspecting their work, and contract managers’ review of the quality and cost of finished products was often so shoddy that the auditor could not even conclude whether the CHSRA’s spending was justified. In one especially egregious case, in 2017, the CHSRA hired an external consultant to check the work of Parsons Brinckerhoff (now WSP USA), which had been paid $666 million for engineering consulting. The external consultant found that the CHSRA had not received finished work for 145 of 184 tasks that Parsons Brinckerhoff had called “complete.”
It seems clear that the CHSRA is too incompetent to manage a project of California HSR’s complexity. The Authority has promised to consider the audit’s recommendations, but as CHSRA has already been criticized for its lax management for years, such promises are scant comfort. Possibly the best chance to salvage the project would be to turn it over wholesale to a European or Japanese railroad with prior experience managing high-speed rail projects, but CHSRA’s work has been so slapdash that it’s hard to imagine a competent foreign entity wanting to take over the mess. (In 2009, the French national railroad SNCF offered to build the project along a slightly different route, and even lined up private funding. The CHSRA rebuffed the offer and kept silent about it for years, until the California legislature authorized public construction funds.)
Fortunately, only a small fraction of CAHSR’s projected cost—$1.4 billion out of nearly $100 billion total—has been spent so far. The question arises whether the remaining money, almost all of it coming from California taxpayers, could be put to better uses. Countless projects suggest themselves, ranging from road repair—the poor state of California’s roads is notorious—to shoring up the state’s precarious finances. Even within the narrow field of rail transit, some portion of CAHSR’s cost could be instead given to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which has already demonstrated an ability to finish projects within reasonable budgets. A comparatively small amount of state aid to LA Metro would do far more for California’s environment and economy than CAHSR.
It’s hard to see why the project should continue. The CHSRA’s planning model has been to keep problems secret for as long as possible, then hope that all the money invested so far is enough to convince the public to keep throwing good money after bad. Fortunately, high-ranking officials—including the chair of the state assembly’s transportation committee, who recently called for the CHSRA chairman to resign—seem increasingly aware of the disaster that CAHSR has become. Incoming governor Gavin Newsom, unlike his predecessor, has at least questioned the project’s utility. More public pressure may persuade him to drop his support of CAHSR and put the money to better uses. Californians should demand the project’s immediate cancellation.
Photo by California High-Speed Rail Authority via Getty Images