Bullet train driving local transit boondoggles

ARTICSACRAMENTO – Over the past six years, California legislators and the governor have increased overall general-fund spending by $36 billion but couldn’t find extra money to spend on road, freeway and other meat-and-potatoes transportation projects. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t spending money like drunken brakemen on myriad rail-related projects.

Sacramento’s transportation focus has been transit, which Democratic leaders believe will reduce the state’s global-warming footprint and combat congestion by encouraging Californians to ditch their cars in favor of a rail pass. State leaders complain about a lack of money – hence, the newly signed law to boost gas taxes and vehicle-license fees – but the problem always comes down to priorities.

Bottom line: California officials are far more interested in social engineering than transportation engineering. They prefer to prod and cajole us into changing the way we get around than in building the infrastructure to help us actually get around. Even the new tax-hike package includes $750 million extra a year in transit projects and for biking and hiking projects, according to a Senate Republican analysis.

The most high-profile example of this approach is, of course, the governor’s pet high-speed rail project, a $64-billion-plus project that promises to connect the Bay Area to Southern California (via a variety of Central Valley cities) in about three hours. The rail authority last week sold $1.25 billion in bonds as it seeks to get something on the ground so there’s no turning back.

As former Assembly speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2013, referring to the cost-overrun-laden Transbay Terminal in San Francisco: “If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

At least he was honest. A lot of sensible people have wondered why the Brown administration is spending so much time and scarce transportation dollars on a bullet train that won’t be particularly fast and faces enormous geographical hurdles (getting over the Tehachapi Mountains, for starters). Well, Jerry Brown is following the Willie Brown model: he’s trying to dig a hole that’s as deep and wide as possible.

In fact, state and local governments are digging several holes – fiscal sink holes, actually, that are closely linked to the bullet-train project. For instance, Orange County taxpayers, thanks to the Measure M tax, spent $120 million to build the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center. Its acronym, ARTIC, is a good one given that the bullet train should reach that destination sometime after hell freezes over.

This largely empty 67,000 square-foot boondoggle was meant as a central hub for the county’s bus, Metrolink and other transit services – but was justified because of the role it could play as the end point for the bullet train. The project’s boosters predicted 10,000 riders daily, but it struggles to serve 2,800 a day. As I wrote for the Orange County Register recently, it was supposed to pay for itself, but it’s only expected to earn $1.4 million of its $3.9 million annual budget. The city’s tourism district has decided to stop paying the deficit, which will now be borne by Anaheim taxpayers.

It’s an even more precarious situation in San Francisco. Willie Brown might be okay with the $2.4 billion spent on that Transbay Transit Center, a similar hub in the city by the Bay, but that city’s taxpayers should be less thrilled by its $20 million in annual operating subsidies a year.

“The three-block-long behemoth was envisioned as the Grand Central Station of the West, a dynamic hub for buses and high-speed rail that would draw more than 100,000 visitors a day,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle columnists Matier & Ross. “Come opening day, however, there will be no high-speed rail. Instead, for many years, the five-level showcase … will be little more than the world’s most expensive bus station — serving mainly the 14,000 Transbay bus commuters … .”

And other costs are coming for that project. “For high-speed rail to reach the new terminal,” says California Policy Center’s Marc Joffe, “Caltrain would have to be extended 1.3 miles from its current San Francisco terminus at 4th and Townsend. It would cost a lot of money – perhaps a billion dollars – to build this new 1.3-mile subway.”

San Francisco is also spending nearly $1.6 billion, in coordination with Caltrain and the California High Speed Rail Authority, to connect the Caltrain commuter rail depot to the North Beach neighborhood. There are legitimate local reasons to extend this light-rail system perhaps, but the prospect of a pie-in-the-sky bullet train is driving some of these decisions. These are costly projects – and the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Likewise, Los Angeles Metro officials just approved a massive overhaul of Union Station to enable it to “handle an expected doubling in the number of daily passengers by 2040,” according to Curbed Los Angeles. “Another big part of the project is readying Union Station for high-speed rail service” even though “questions continue to swirl around the fate of that much-delayed project as political opposition to it grows in Congress … .”

Yeah, but you’ve got to start digging holes, especially holes that get transit advocates clapping.

Los Angeles magazine wrote last week that “Against all odds, the California Bullet Train Barrels Forward.” Well, it is true the state’s political leadership won’t take no for an answer, and the courts continue to let the current project barrel ahead even though many of its main promises are at odds with the supposedly ironclad promises made to voters when they approved the initial $9.95 billion bond funding in 2008’s Proposition 1A.

Last week, a superior court judge said bond money can be spent despite an ongoing legal challenge. But overcoming political and legal hurdles isn’t the same things as surmounting myriad fiscal and engineering feats, which lie at the heart of the bullet-train’s problems.

One of the fathers of this rail project, former judge Quentin Kopp, has argued that the high-speed rail (HSR) project “is no longer a genuine HSR system, as covenanted to California voters and the Legislature. Instead, it has been distorted in a way directly contrary to the high-speed rail plan the authority attempted to implement while I was chairman.” He takes issue with the current “blended” system, which shares commuter-line tracks near Los Angeles and San Francisco. He also complained about the way bullet-train funds are used for that central subway project in San Francisco.

Certainly, sending supposed bullet trains along commuter tracks will vastly reduce the speed of the trains – and the whole purpose of a project designed to provide speedy north-to-south transportation. But Kopp, who made his arguments as a declaration in one of the lawsuits opposing the current rail project, is thinking rationally, whereas the Brown administration and the rail authority are too busy embracing Willie Brown’s cynical approach.

I argued for the California Policy Center that the new $5.2 billion a year transportation tax really is a pension tax given that state officials have refused to rein in pension costs, which will soon require the state to dump $11 billion a year into the pension systems. Had state officials fixed the pension mess, they would have had plenty of cash to fund extra transportation projects.

But the new tax increases also can be thought of as a high-speed rail tax. If state officials weren’t spending so much money on these wasteful rail-related transit projects, they’d have extra money to fix roads, bridges and freeways – and to provide realistic transit projects rather than overbuilt boondoggles designed with a future fantasy train in mind.

Steven Greenhut is a contributing editor to California Policy Center. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

This piece was originally published by the California Policy Center.

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