No one knows what it might cost to build a high-speed rail system in California like the one sold to voters in 2008 — and worse yet, it’s not clear just who, if anyone, would ride it.
Dreams of a bullet train whisking passengers from San Diego to San Francisco are likely dead for now, with state officials committed to only a 171-mile, proof-of-concept stretch from Merced to Bakersfield, with a ribbon-cutting in 2026 or 2027.
What they’re most likely to prove is the thing’s a boondoggle, said James Moore, a professor of transportation engineering at the University of Southern California.
“There is no rational justification for this system as a whole,” he said. “But from Merced to Bakersfield? That’s insane.”
Money, of course, remains the overarching issue with the project, with the price tag for a statewide train system closing in on $100 billion.
Fed up, the Trump administration stopped payment this week on $929 million in federal tax dollars intended for the railway and announced plans to perhaps claw back some of the $2.5 billion already spent on it.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, was already less enthusiastic about the rail project than his predecessor, Jerry Brown, and has moved to limit active planning to the central California segment.
But Mr. Newsom insists the statewide plan remains viable, and he lashed out at President Trump’s decision to curtail federal funding.
The Democrat called the move “political retribution” for California’s legal challenges to the administration’s immigration policies, and said the state won’t sit “idly by” in the face of the withdrawal of funds.
The legal and financial fights aside, analysts say there’s a bigger problem: The trains appear to be a product without riders.
Ridership of the San Joaquin Amtrak line that currently services the state’s central valley is steadily falling, from 1.2 million in 2012-2013 to 1.07 million in the year between October 2017 and September 2018.
“We’re trying to get the San Joaquin moving back in a positive direction,” said David Lipari, the marketing director for the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority.
Mr. Lipari acknowledged the tough sledding, despite tinkering with the fares, which currently hover around $7.50 one-way for journeys within the valley. That price is borne by average riders who are “less economically advantaged,” Mr. Lipari said.
The current Amtrak train from Merced to Bakersfield takes slightly more than three hours, or about as long as a car trip. The high-speed train is projected to make it in under an hour.
Yet whether that’s enough to win riders is anyone’s guess, with part of the uncertainty being nobody knows how much more expensive it might be.
Neither Mr. Lipari nor a spokeswoman with the high-speed rail’s Fresno office would offer any estimate on a ticket price.
Nor would anyone address the viability of two train systems in the valley. Spokespeople at the high-speed rail system’s Sacramento headquarters and Fresno offices this week didn’t answer questions from The Washington Times about future ridership and other issues.
“No one is going to ride it,” said Victor Davis Hanson, a conservative scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute.
His family owns a farm seven miles from the high-speed track under construction near Fresno. Mr. Hanson commutes once a week from Fresno to Palo Alto, a trip that takes about three hours by car, he said.
California officials’ fealty to the project is at odds with mountains of evidence that it has been a debacle so far.
In 2012, a consortium of California newspapers researched the high-speed rail system in Spain, the one cited by President Barack Obama and others as a model for the U.S., and found it was a money loser.
“In Spain, the high-speed rail effort has rapidly expanded to become Europe’s most extensive high-speed network — third in the world behind China’s and Japan’s — while facing remarkably little of the NIMBYism, farm opposition or politics fermenting throughout California,” the newspapers wrote.
“But despite assurances from the Spanish government that the long-distance AVE trains operate without a public subsidy, academics and analysts don’t believe that even the busiest high-speed route, between Madrid and Barcelona, musters enough riders to cover operating costs, much less the billions of euros invested to build the infrastructure over the past 20 years.”
California law demands the high-speed rail operate with no subsidies once it starts, but that is likely impossible, according to experts. To date, only two high-speed lines on earth — the most heavily traveled from Osaka to Tokyo and from Paris to Lyon — are the only ones to turn a profit, Mr. Moore said.
The sticker price in California has soared at the same time ridership on the existing train service has declined.
In 2008, voters approved $10 billion in initial bonds for planning and construction of high-speed rail from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The initial price tag was $33 billion.
Today, the projected price is $77 billion for just the 119-mile run through the Central Valley, and many warn the full length could approach $100 billion.
Originally, backers championed a sort of “build it and they will come” mentality. With land and housing prices on the coast and in the San Francisco Bay area at astonishingly high prices, the option of high-speed rail would make cheaper destinations farther inland more attractive.
Yet California riders would have a surfeit of options, given the Altamont Corridor Express commuter train system, another state service, is building lines further out into the interior from San Francisco and Sacramento.
“The thinking now seems to be, ‘we really blew it, but what the hell are we going to do with this thing?’” Mr. Hanson said. “They deliberately built many of the most expensive and complicated parts of it first, and now you’ve got these ugly concrete ramps looming right over Highway 99 that just sit there like Stonehenge.”
The seemingly endless delays and cost overruns have squandered much of the goodwill the project may have once enjoyed, and local media reports of high-speed rail community meetings are suffused with angry comments.
“They’ve lied so much that no one believes them anymore when they say they figure another $5 billion will get this one part done,” Mr. Hanson said. “They don’t have any credibility, but with the landscape desecrated by these reminders of how stupid they’ve been, even people who oppose it are like, ‘what are we going to do with it?’”