AP Claims California's $68 Billion High-Speed Rail Got 'Overwhelming' Voter Approval (of 52.7%), Would 'Span the State'

October 20th, 2013 1:13 PM

In a Sunday morning report which tries to put the best possible face on a project which appears to be on track to make the $22 billion "Big Dig" in Massachusetts look like a petty cash disbursement, Juliet Williams at the Associated Press claimed that the $68 billion involved thus far "would span the state." No it wouldn't, unless all of the formerly Golden State north of the San Francisco Bay Area — roughly one-fourth of the state's land mass — were to secede.

Williams also wrote: "Voters in 2008 approved $10 billion in bonds to start construction on an 800-mile rail line to ferry passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours and 40 minutes." Nope. It's an 800-mile rail "network" (quoting from the state's ballot measure guide) which was supposed to include San Diego to the south (see the top left at Page 6 at the link), and apparently now does not. In other text seen below, she cited that 2008 proposition, which carried by a margin of 52.7% to 47.3%, as evidence that voters "overhelmingly approved" the project.

Other excerpts show that Williams also implicitly accepts the idea that the Big Bullet Train Dig will be an economic panacea:



Trucks loaded with tomatoes, milk and almonds clog the two main highways that bisect California's farm heartland, carrying goods to millions along the Pacific Coast and beyond. This dusty stretch of land is the starting point for one of the nation's most expensive public infrastructure projects [2]: a $68 billion high-speed rail system that would span the state, linking the people of America's salad bowl to more jobs, opportunity and buyers.

Five years ago, California voters overwhelmingly approved the idea of bringing a bullet train to the nation's most populous state. [3] It would be America's first high-speed rail system, sold to the public as a way to improve access to good-paying jobs, cut pollution from smog-filled roadways and reduce time wasted sitting in traffic while providing an alternative to high fuel prices.

Now, engineering work has finally begun [4] on the first 30-mile segment of track here in Fresno, a city of a half-million people with soaring unemployment and a withering downtown core littered with abandoned factories and shuttered stores.

Rail is meant to help this place, with construction jobs now and improved access to economic opportunity once the job is complete. But the region that could benefit most from the project is also where opposition to it has grown most fierce.

... Construction has been postponed repeatedly, and a court victory this summer by opponents threatens further delays; a Sacramento County Superior Court judge said the state rail authority's plan goes against the promise made to voters to identify all the funding for the first segment before starting construction. [5]

... (the project) will create hundreds of good-paying jobs for several years as officials tear down buildings, draw engineering plans, survey wildlife and, eventually, lay track. [6] It will also help move the Central Valley beyond the dominant low-wage agriculture sector, (California High-Speed Rail Authority Chairman Jeff) Morales says.

... Gov. Jerry Brown calls rail "cheaper than the alternative, and it's a hell of a lot better." [7] The project also offers the 75-year-old Democrat a chance at a legacy. What is less certain is what the legacy will be, and whether high-speed rail will ever be what was once promised. Critics say the ridership projections are inflated and rely on low ticket prices that would require government subsidies [8],  although the federal Government Accountability Office has called them reasonable.

The Obama administration promised $3.2 billion for the first phase as part of the federal stimulus package, but that is just a fraction of the money needed to complete the system, leaving many of the valley's 6.5 million residents to suspect California taxpayers will be on the hook for the rest. [9]  The state's independent analyst calls current funding plans "highly speculative."


[1] — Even the headline is misleading. Most people would understand "work" to mean "construction." As seen later in the report, it's not. The San Jose Mercury News reported on September 17 that "rail officials for the first time have acknowledged it will be another 'few months' before construction, which has already been delayed a year, begins." At least one lawsuit is still pending.

[2] — If there's a more expensive individual infrastructure project in the U.S. than the system's full projected cost of $68 billion, I'd like to know what it is. I haven't found one in my research.

[3] — That "overwhelming" approval constituted a whopping 52 percent of voters, according to an (ahem) AP report on election night in 2008. Specifically, "The measure, which passed with 52 percent support Tuesday, will fund the first phase of what is projected to be a $45 billion, 800-mile project built with state, federal, local and private money." The final margin was really 5.4 points (Page 7 at link), but that's hardly "overwhelming." Voters were also specifically given the $45 billion cost estimate in the state's proposition explanation (Page 5 at link), and were provided with no official warning that actual costs might come in significantly higher.

[4] — Wow. "Engineering work" has begun. What about real construction?

[5] — If, as the judge ruled, the rail authority's plan does not identify all private funding sources, that indeed breaks a promise made to voters in 2008 (at Page 6 at link):


[6] — Finally, we get the admission that the beginning of "work" doesn't involve "lay(ing) track." And really, Juliet, is "surveying wildlife" a significant enough element of the project to warrant special mention? If so, that goes a long way towards explaining $69 billion (a good bet to be $100 billion by the time it's all done) in cost.

[7] — Brown's contention only holds if the project generates sufficient ridership. Even if the fully completed project will (which is doubtful), the opening segment almost certainly won't, and will be such an ongoing drain that it's probably better handled by not having it run until other segments are done.

[8] — If ever completed, the project "will" required subsidies from a federal government which is already $17 trillion in debt.

[9] — It isn't just "valley residents" who "suspect" that California's taxpayers will get stuck. The only question is really how far all other U.S. taxpayers will get sucked into the Big Bullet Train Dig.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.