The twisted saga behind California’s bullet train

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
This image provided by the California High Speed Rail Authority shows an artist's rendering of a high-speed train station.  (AP Photo/California High Speed Rail Authority)

The groundbreaking ceremony for California’s long-awaited, long-debated, long-delayed high-speed rail system — a 220 mph, $68.4 billion bullet train designed to zip between Los Angeles and San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes — was set to start at noon on Tuesday, Jan. 6.

My plan was to go to Fresno to cover it. As an Angeleno, I had two options.

The first was a flight. An hour to the airport on standstill freeways; an hour to get to my gate; an hour or so in the air. Maybe some delays. A rental car on the other end. And then the whole ordeal in reverse. Ticket price? At least $661.

The second option was driving. Three and a half hours to Fresno; three and a half hours back. Four hundred thirty extra miles on the odometer. Seventeen gallons of gas. An entire workday wasted on the road. All to attend an hourlong event.

And so when I found out the festivities were being live-streamed online, I did what any sensible Californian would do: I stayed in L.A. and watched from the comfort of my own laptop.

This is the problem — or at least one of the problems — that the bullet train is supposed to solve. According to the California High-Speed Rail Authority, if last Tuesday’s event had been held on Jan. 6, 2029, instead of Jan. 6, 2015— 2029 is the year the full S.F.-L.A. line is scheduled to start running — someone like me could have purchased a (roughly) $100 round-trip ticket, worked from his Wi-Fi-equipped seat and arrived in Fresno approximately 75 painless minutes later.

Gov. Jerry Brown speaks to the crowd during the California High Speed Rail Authority ground breaking event Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015 in Fresno, Calif. The $68 billion project faces challenges from Republicans in Congress eager to reduce government spending and Central Valley farmers suing to block the train from crossing their fields. The train would whisk travelers at 200 mph between Los Angeles and San Francisco in less than three hours. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)

Which explains why Gov. Jerry Brown, who has been pushing for high-speed rail since the early 1980s, was so giddy at the groundbreaking. “A train!” he shouted. “It’s sociable! It’s amenable! It’s the future — and it’s happening right here in Fresno, CA! We’ve got a lot to be proud of today!”

What it doesn’t explain is why it was nearly impossible, even with a backer like Brown in a state like California, to build a bullet train in the first place — and why it’s still pretty much impossible anywhere else in America.

“This is a transformative undertaking,” says Martin Wachs, an emeritus professor of urban planning at UCLA who has written extensively about large transportation projects. “And it’s being done in an environment of huge uncertainties.”

Which raises the question: Is the Golden State’s grand experiment, by far the largest public-works project in the country, a harbinger of the bold new era in transportation and infrastructure spending? Is it the first of many high-speed-rail “innovations,” as President Barack Obama declared in 2009, “that [will] change the way we travel in America” and “define our regions for centuries to come”? Or is it just another example of Obama-era government overreach — the exception that proves we can no longer do Big Things?

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Graphic shows high-speed rail project in central California.(AP)

The California bullet train has been controversial from the start. In 1996, after decades of discussion and study, the state finally created the High-Speed Rail Authority and began to plan for a ballot proposition. The vote was initially scheduled for 1998 or 2000. Then it was pushed back to 2004. Then skittish state legislators delayed it again. And again. Voters didn’t get a chance to weigh in on the bullet train until 2008. Forty-seven percent voted no; 53 percent voted yes. Nearly $10 billion in state bond money was pledged to the project.

That’s when the real controversy began. The “project” that Californians approved came with certain estimates of cost ($33 billion), ticket price ($55), speed (220 mph), ridership (65.5 million to 96.5 million) and date of completion (2020). But when Jerry Brown took office a little more than two years later, in 2011, his appointees re-examined the numbers and realized they didn’t add up. “The organization was at half-strength, the board was dysfunctional,” current California High-Speed Rail Authority Chairman Dan Richard recently explained. “There was a high level of criticism from independent groups evaluating ridership and plans.”

So Richard and his colleagues came up with new, more accurate estimates. In November 2011 they released their revised blueprint. Now, according to the authority, as few as 29.6 million people would ride the entire line annually. The system wouldn’t be finished until 2033. Tickets would be more than $80. And the whole project would cost a whopping $98 billion, roughly double the previous year-of-expenditure projection.

Critics howled. “California is our Greece, the most fiscally irresponsible of U.S. states,” wrote Richard M. Salsman in Forbes. “And now it has another fiscal fiasco on its hands.” The word “boondoggle” seemed to appear in every story about the bullet train. In 2010, the Obama administration had awarded California an extra $3.2 billion as part of the president’s ambitious plan to “give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail” “within 25 years.” But when Republicans took over the House of Representatives the following year, they cut off all further federal funding for high-speed rail — including California’s. “It’s time for the governor to pull up the tracks,” said Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield). “Everything he has said has not come to fruition. It’s time to scratch the project.”

The battle lines were familiar — and fundamental. On one side were liberals like Obama who believed that even in the midst of a downturn, America should shore up its economic future by investing in big things: education, health care, clean energy and infrastructure. On the other side were conservatives who insisted that only tax cuts and austerity could strengthen the American economy.

In April 2012, the California High-Speed Rail Authority reworked its projections yet again, reducing the cost estimate to $68.4 billion. (It eventually recalibrated its ridership estimates as well.) But the lower price tag didn’t have much of an impact, in large part because the authority’s thrifty decision to share a small amount of track with existing urban train lines made it seem as if the S.F.-L.A. trip would take a lot longer than originally promised.

The narrative had been set — and even Democrats were starting to worry. “If liberals keep pushing this project forward in the face of plain evidence that its official justifications are brazenly preposterous,” warned Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, “conservatives are going to be able to pound us year after year for wasting taxpayer money.” Over the next 18 months, legal and environmental challenges mounted, and by the end of 2013 Drum was declaring that the “California Bullet Train Might Be Breathing Its Last.”

And yet today — a little more than a year later — construction is finally underway. What changed? Were the critics wrong?

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Gov. Jerry Brown, center left, and his wife Anne Gust, fourth from right, sign a portion of the rail at the California High Speed Rail Authority ground breaking event as Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, standing next to Brown at left, watches, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015 in Fresno, Calif. Gina McCarthy. California’s high-speed rail project has become the first in the nation to break ground. Tuesday’s groundbreaking was attended by several hundred people who gathered near old rail lines in an industrial section of downtown Fresno. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)

The answer to the first question is simple: a lot. California high-speed rail had a very good 2014 — even if the turnaround didn’t get much play in the East Coast press.

With a $68.4 billion price tag and only about $14 billion in state and federal funds in the pipeline, skeptics had been demanding for years to know where the rest of the money was going to come from. In June, Brown gave them at least a partial answer, persuading the legislature to devote 25 percent of future cap-and-trade revenue — an estimated $1 billion a year — to ongoing construction expenses. Interest among potential private investors, crucial for the train’s long-term viability, immediately picked up. One called cap-and-trade “a turning point”; another said it was “the signal the private sector has been waiting for.”

A few months later, the California Supreme Court declined to review a lawsuit challenging the issuance of bonds for construction and the U.S. Surface Transportation Board ruled that several lawsuits challenging the rail authority’s plans on environmental grounds were barred by federal law — removing the last of the project’s major legal hurdles and paving the way for construction. Polls showed that a majority of Californians now approved of the bullet train. 

And yet, despite all the good news, it’s still unclear whether high-speed rail — “an engineering project comparable to the United States’ first transcontinental railroad or the Panama Canal,” as one expert recently described it — will actually end up transforming California, let alone the rest of the country.

Opponents continue to say no. “A high-speed rail system might be great in theory,” they argue, “but the realities of this plan fall far short. It will cost too much, take too long, use up too much land, go to the wrong places, and in the end won't be fast or convenient enough to do that much good anyway.”

Boosters of the bullet train, meanwhile, are sounding more boosterish than ever. Whisking reporters from L.A. to Fresno isn’t the only perk of high-speed rail, they claim. One after another, supporters paraded to the podium at last Tuesday’s groundbreaking to tout the project’s miraculous benefits.

Some of them talked about jobs. “Today we launch construction of the greatest infrastructure project that’s ever been built — not only in California but in the history of this nation,” declared Robbie Hunter, president of the state Building and Construction Trades Council. “This train will create 66,000 jobs annually statewide over the next 15 years alone.”

Others discussed the environment. “By 2040, vehicles will drive 10 million fewer miles every day ... and by 2030, projected growth in air travel will be cut in half,” predicted EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. “That’s a reduction of millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions.”

California Governor Jerry Brown's name and others are pictured on a railroad rail after a ceremony for the California High Speed Rail in Fresno, California January 6, 2015. California officials broke ground on Tuesday on its ambitious but controversial high-speed rail project, marking another milestone for Brown and for foreign manufacturers waiting to bid on lucrative train contracts. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS TRANSPORT)

And still others spoke about effieciency. “Two railroad tracks can carry as many passengers an hour as 16 lanes of freeway in much less space,” said Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo. “High-speed rail will reduce congestion and promote economic development.”

The boosters’ basic point is this. The population of California is projected to grow enormously over the next few decades, to an estimated 60 million people by 2050, and therefore so are its transportation needs. Expanding the state’s rail system consumes fewer acres of valuable agricultural land than expanding its freeway system. It’s better for the environment than adding more airplanes in the sky or putting more cars on the roads. And ultimately it creates more jobs and costs less money — nearly $100 billion less, according to state estimates — than any of the alternatives.

Sure, critics complain that the first leg of construction — a 29-mile span that will link Madera and Fresno and eventually continue on to other Central Valley cities — is a “train to nowhere.” But that just reflects bicoastal ignorance about inland California. In fact, the Amtrak route down the Central Valley is the sixth busiest in the nation; Fresno is 80 percent the size of Baltimore; Bakersfield is larger than Newark; Modesto is three times the size of Wilmington; and Merced has about the same population as Trenton. Building the spine of the system in California’s Central Valley — the fastest-growing, least prosperous, most polluted part of the state — will create a beachhead with immediate value and serve to emphasize the economic and environmental advantages of high-speed rail.

Or at least that’s what supporters say.

So whom should we believe? As one reporter recently wrote, “Even in today’s hyper-polarized political environment, the high-speed rail project stands out for its ability to elicit dissimilar descriptions.”

After the groundbreaking, I put the question to Martin Wachs, the longtime UCLA urban planning professor. His take? I have no clue.

Wachs is being honest — and wise. “This project is so large and so complicated that you cannot pretend that we know everything about it,” he said. “We really don’t.”

And here’s the thing: With huge public-works projects, that’s pretty much always the case — not just in America but in bullet-train-friendly countries such as Japan and France as well. “Megaprojects are all difficult, and they’re difficult because of risk,” Wachs explained. “Take the U.S. interstate system. That was advocated by some people before 1920. But it wasn’t adopted by Congress until 1944, and it wasn’t funded until 1956. Only then did construction begin. In other words, it was on the drawing boards for a long, long time. And it was very controversial.”

The reason the controversy seems particularly heated in present-day America is that our tolerance for uncertainty is at an all-time low. For that, we have our polarized political system — and the 24/7 media industry that fuels it — to thank. Admit that you don’t know, and someone — a pundit, a political opponent, whoever — will step into the vacuum you’ve just created and insist that he does. This explains why Republican governors in Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio rejected billions of dollars in federal high-speed rail money — and why the only other bullet trains in consideration (in Florida and Texas) are private.

Japan Railway's N700 bullet train stands at a platform of Tokyo Station in Tokyo in this July 6, 2007 file photo. The Texas Central Railway Company plans to use private investment and Central Japan Railway bullet train technology to run a high-speed line between Dallas and Houston, two of the largest U.S. cities. (REUTERS/Toru Hanai)

According to Wachs, the risks of California high-speed rail are real: So far, the rail authority has purchased only one-fifth of the land parcels it needs to build the first phase of the line, and it has pocketed only slightly more than half the necessary funding. The potential benefits are real, too. The problem is, no one can afford to acknowledge both realities and proceed accordingly. And so supporters and opponents wind up sounding as if they’re from two different planets.

“Other governments seem to be able to consider the alternatives more openly,” Wachs said. “Sometimes they say the pluses outweigh the minuses; other times they say the minuses outweigh the pluses. But at least they agree on what those pluses and minuses are. Here, the left seems to be denying the minuses and the right seems to be denying the pluses. I wish we had a political system in which we could be more balanced.”

In the meantime, construction will continue — and California will learn to live with the uncertainty that entails. At the groundbreaking ceremony, Brown himself admitted that “when I was first elected governor I had some doubts about this project. I wasn’t quite sure where the hell we were going to get the rest of the money."

"But don’t worry about it," he added. "We are going to get it. We’ve overcome a lot of obstacles.”