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Bullet Train’s “Blended” Boondoggle

Thursday July 14th, 2016   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 5:17am PDT   •  

43626212 - seaside railwayWe have been keeping track, so to speak, of California’s high-speed rail project, the vaunted “bullet train.” In February, we noted that farmers are not eager to sell the land the project needs. The alleged cost of $68 billion was already more than double the $33 billion estimate before California voters approved $9.95 billion in bonds seven years ago. The costs will likely be much higher because the mountains north of Los Angeles will require 36 miles of tunnels, the most ambitious tunneling project in the nation’s history. High-speed rail bosses were touting a “revised version” of the route connecting the San Joaquin Valley with the San Francisco Bay Area, instead of Los Angeles as the project was sold to voters. Now the rail bosses are up to new tricks.

As Dan Walters writes in the Sacramento Bee, in the current “blended” system, the bullet train shares tracks with local commuter rail projects. This was supposedly to keep costs down but the state is planning to spend “at least $1.1 billion” on the “bookends” of the project. These commuter rail links, having been merged with the larger bullet train project, “also share its legal and financial challenges.” For one thing, an independent consultant must certify that the project passes the legal criteria of the bond issue, before approval of funding. Walters doubts the project can pull that off, “and that doubt could doom the bookends as well, since they are now part of the overall system.” Politicians have responded with a measure that would allow the bookends to get bond money by bypassing independent certification. Despite such moves, the bullet train’s larger problems remain.

Many Californians see little need for a rail project that would be slower than air travel and more expensive. If anyone believes the bullet train can be built for $68 billion, or any amount politicians claim, they might recall the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge: $5 billion over budget, ten years late, and still contending with safety issues.

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July 2016