The state of California, already $28 billion in debt, is supposed to begin construction of a $68 billion high-speed rail project in July. The state's High-Speed Rail Authority voted last week to issue $8.6 billion in taxpayer-approved bonds to build the first 130 miles of track between Fresno and Bakersfield.
But a slew of lawsuits threatens to delay the project, and state authorities still have not purchased a single acre of land on which to build the rail line. Now one of the project's original supporters, the co-author of the ballot initiative that launched it, has joined an effort by Central Valley farmers to stop the train dead in its tracks.
"They have just mangled this project," former legislator and high-speed rail backer Quentin Kopp recently told the Los Angeles Times. "They distorted it. We don't get a high-speed rail system. It is the great train robbery."
It was originally sold to voters as a $40 billion project that would transport passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours, 40 minutes. After its approval, authorities upped the price tag to $100 billion. After public outrage over the escalating costs, the High-Speed Rail Authority scaled back its ambitions, resulting in the current $68 billion price tag.
But in the process of cutting costs, Kopp notes, the authority failed to honor the requirements set out in the original voter referendum. Specifically, because the high-speed trains will now share track with commuter trains in urban areas, the project will not be able to transport people across the state in less than three hours.
The original ballot measure also stipulated that each project segment must be large enough to be a "usable segment" for passenger rail so that taxpayers would not get stuck paying for a high-speed train to nowhere. Kopp says the current Fresno-to-Bakersfield plan does not meet that test.
Unfortunately, California taxpayers are not the only victims of this train robbery. President Obama's failed economic stimulus also included $12 billion in high-speed rail funds, $3.2 billion of which ended up in California. And the rest of the money isn't being spent much more efficiently.
In the Pacific Northwest, for example, $800 million in taxpayer funds was spent upgrading the Amtrak line between Seattle and Portland, Ore. That comes to nearly $1,000 per annual passenger. But don't expect a much quicker ride. Washington state only shaved 10 minutes off of what had been a 3-hour, 40-minute trip.
Asked whether he was disappointed at the failure to build a single high-speed rail line anywhere in America, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood tried to reassure CNN's Drew Griffin by reminding him how much money the government has spent on it. "In four years," he said, "we've invested $12 billion."
When Griffin refused to settle for this dubious measure of success, LaHood argued that the $12 billion (which is more than three times Amtrak's annual budget) had improved Amtrak's on-time service record. He added, "I think people like the investments we're making. There's so much enthusiasm in America for high-speed rail."
But California now has the only remaining high-speed project on the table. You can judge for yourself how much enthusiasm remains.