If it takes more than two decades to build a high-speed train track, is it really “high-speed” rail, or high-speed fail?
Twelve years ago this month, then-Florida Governor Rick Scott declined an offer of $2.4 billion in federal funding from the administration of President Barack Obama, money that was supposed to be spent on a “shovel-ready” high-speed bullet train project that would connect Orlando to Tampa. When Scott announced the rejection, some Republicans and many prominent Democrats sharply attacked the new governor’s logic.
At the time, Scott made it clear that he had serious doubts about ridership projections and about the overall cost of the project – costs that Florida taxpayers would eventually have to cover when the full bill became due. Democrats scoffed at the reasoning. Years before she was convicted on public corruption charges, Jacksonville-area Congresswoman Corrine Brown fretted to any reporters who would listen that California was eagerly rubbing their palms together in anticipation of getting Florida’s billions for use on their own high-speed rail project.
Brown also took issue with Scott’s concern that Florida taxpayers would be on the hook for cost overruns. Here’s how that appeared in the February 17, 2011 edition of the Florida Times Union:
But U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., the ranking Democrat on a railway subcommittee, angrily rejected suggestions that taxpayers could be stuck with extra costs.
“There was no way that the state was going to be held liable for cost overruns,” Brown said. “Private companies were willing to partner with the state and pay any overruns.
Brown said she would work with [Florida Senator Bill ] Nelson and [Florida Congressman John] Mica to try to save the project but was pessimistic about their chances.
“I don’t think you can do this without the support of the state,” she said.
Unless the project can be salvaged, the $2.4 billion will now go to another state that wants to build high-speed rail.
“I was on the House floor today and people from New York and California are excited about getting our money,” Brown said.
As things would play out, the Obama Administration gave most of Florida’s billions to California.
Since then, California’s toy train project hasn’t gone well. Like, at all.
The State of California, which, unlike Florida, does not have a balanced budget requirement, finds itself in the midst of an ongoing fiscal disaster, and it’s only getting worse. Only eight months ago, Governor Gavin Newsom giddily announced that his state was about to post the largest state budget surplus in history, which he claimed would be about $97.5 billion in extra funding (in California, that’s considered “free money”). Naturally, being a Democrat without any constitutional limits on spending, Newsom’s proposed budget lavished the cash all over the state.
It turns out, though, that Newsom’s math was a little off – the expected surplus has since shriveled up thanks to inflation and a rather sudden economic downturn that completely erased the surplus and turned it into a $22.5 billion smouldering crater in less than a year.
What’s all that got to do with Florida’s decision to cancel high speed rail? Stay with me.
One of the first things California will slash because of the new budget deficit is the state’s transit system, which is getting a $2 billion haircut courtesy of Newsom. Yet the state needs those funds just to keep existing public transit systems functioning, whether or not anyone is riding them. That’s an important thing to note. Public transit systems cost money to operate and maintain, even if nobody is riding the trains or buses. And apparently in California, nobody is riding public transit. Or at least, not nearly enough are riding to cover the costs.
But of course, that’s for existing transit infrastructure, not high-speed rail which, 12 years later, still doesn’t exist in California. And on March 1st, California’s High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) is slated to give an update on the project to the California legislature. It’s not going to be good news. The entire project is turning out to be exactly the thing Rick Scott warned Florida about: a boondoggle of the worst kind. CHSRA is expected to tell California’s mostly leftist lawmakers that the project is currently slated to come in around $106 billion, but could go as high as $128 billion, and though it’s scheduled to begin operations in 2033, the project is facing “time pressure.” For those who aren’t quick on the uptake, “time pressure” is bureaucratese for “we’re gonna miss our deadline.”
And I’m here to tell you that both the budget and the schedule estimates are way off. The costs will go higher and the 2033 deadline will get pushed back again. Call it a hunch. Call it me knowing the nature of bureaucrats who have no budget limitations and endless access to a federal government printing press. The original plan for California at the time called for a budget of $43 billion to construct the line from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and despite a lot of attempts to slash costs and scale back the project, nothing has worked. High speed rail just isn’t getting any cheaper, and the deadlines just keep getting pushed back further and further.
The worst thing about this story though, is the fact that even if they complete the project on time and on budget, California still has to budget billions more per year to maintain and operate the system. It will never be profitable because high-speed rail is going to be outcompeted by other technologies like autonomous vehicles and new developments in highway design and computerization.
By the time California does finally get it all built, say sometime around 2040 if they are lucky, the concept of high speed rail will be probably be totally obsolete. Already, there are companies working not just on autonomous vehicles (AV’s), but networks of AV’s that will easily outcompete high-speed rail in terms of speed and cost, plus AV’s solve the “last mile” delivery problem that trains can’t. Florida lawmakers are already working on modernizing our highways to prepare for just that.
It’s not hard to imagine using a smartphone to call up a “high-speed” Uber or Lyft car that picks you up at your doorstep, drives you to the highway, and then negotiates and merges with a “train” of fast-moving cars on a dedicated autonomous vehicle lane traveling at 150 mph or more, getting you to your destination in half the time a regular car might take.
Best of all, when you’ve reached the destination, that AV isn’t yours, so it doesn’t need to be parked, it just moves to the next passenger, saving space on the street. While that’s happening across the entire country in the next couple of decades, lawmakers in California will be stuck trying to figure out what to do with the hundreds of miles and billions of dollars worth of unused, half-competed train tracks abandoned in the middle of the California desert.
Don’t say Rick Scott didn’t warn you.