California high-speed rail project slammed by peer review

An ad-hoc group of transportation experts, headed by former state director of transportation Will Kempton, slammed the California High Speed Rail Authority saying it needed “a thorough reassessment of a number of critical engineering, financial, economic and managerial issues.”  Um, that doesn’t leave much for them to be in approval of, does it?

Their report was released Dec. 3, probably in response to state officials approving a $4.3 billion “train to nowhere” on Dec. 2 as the initial part of California high-speed rail. It will go 65 miles from Borden to Corcoran, passing through Fresno. That’s $66 million a mile or $12,500 a foot. I’m going to take a crazy risk here and say there will be breathtaking cost overruns that no member of government or private enterprise could have ever predicted, except if they somehow had access to a calculator and common sense, that is. Thus the final price will certainly be much higher for this hamlet-to-hamlet railroad track that even proponents are admitting won’t be used for a good long while. (Perhaps Sacramento could expand on this and start building stairways to nowhere in state offices in hopes that legislators and bureaucrats would get lost and do us no further harm – but I digress.)

This peer review group, which was organized by the legislature, noted the following major problem areas.

– Funding is unreliable, especially considering the wobbly conditions of the state’s finances and the certainty that the federal government will not give nearly as much as initially predicted. Also, Republicans in DC have said they will attempt block any and all federal funding.

– Costs have already soared enormously. But we already knew that. The initial bond issue in 2008 approved by voters was for $9.95 billion. But costs are already at $40 billion and rising. Also, it’s unclear whether the bond measure can include revenue guarantees for investors. This will probably be decided in court.

– Ridership and revenue projections are unrealistic. This directly affects the ability to raise money from private investors, who will want to know precisely how they will be paid back.

– The California High-Speed Rail Authority is seriously understaffed and lacking in accountability. The roles of the various parties are undefined and unclear. This can and will only lead to chaos, as well as cost overruns and the inevitable lawsuits.

– “The authority needs to be clear about how much of the proposed 800-mile system would run at ground level versus through a tunnel or atop an elevated track.” I find this unbelievable. How could they have not already done this? Well, I guess the answer is obvious. Putting high-speed rail through, for example, the San Jose corridor means it must be above or below ground. There is simply no room to put it at ground level. Even if there were, it would not be feasible because then the trains would have to constantly slow down at car crossings, which defeats the whole purpose of high-speed rail. But putting it above or below ground means huge additional expense. And not just in the San Jose corridor, either.

It’s difficult to see how California high-speed rail will be completed at anything close to current cost estimates, if it indeed is ever completed at all.