It was the Los Angeles Times that described the scene: California Gov. Jerry Brown and other leaders meeting on a vacant industrial parcel in Fresno to mark the launch of construction of a bullet train, the nation’s first.

The $68 billion line is supposed to connect major population centers up and down the state in one of “the most ambitious public works projects ever.” It’s been a goal of Brown’s for, well, years.

The report talked of how the project “has had to overcome decades of political wrangling, engineering challenges and legal hurdles.”

But with parcels locked up for only about six miles of the first 29-mile segment, maybe there are problems that still remain to be overcome.

Critics note the project is years behind plans, way over budget, $40 billion underfunded, could lose federal funding, still requires approval for some of the route and continues to face judicial battles.

Rail projects in the past have played a huge role in building America. Moving people and freight across long distances, they crisscrossed the country and made families like the Vanderbilts and Morgans wealthy.

But today’s return on investment picture is murkier. Advocates sell rail as clean and efficient. They promise that rail will provide travelers or commuters with a choice that will ease traffic congestion.

In reality, major rail projects often set the low standard for public works projects, and critics say none is worse that the California proposal.

Compare what was promised in the project to what is happening. An estimated $33 billion to $40 billion budget has ballooned to $68 billion. Expected major federal funding has yet to materialize. One-way tickets expected to be $55 now are estimated to be $105. Operations were supposed to be covered by revenues, but now those regular subsidies are being planned.

And where 120,000 daily riders were forecast, questions have arisen since their choices will be between $210 round-trip tickets on a train taking hours and similar flights costing only about $130.

The project, which has no realistic projection for an opening day, is not the only one where rail plans have come untracked, so to speak.

When St. Louis voters were asked to support new light rail funding, they were promised commuter lines following traffic corridors to downtown St. Louis from nether regions of the county. The promised benefits included linking the region, reducing traffic congestion and reducing air pollution from road traffic.

The first line followed an abandon rail line and linked the airport to downtown St. Louis stretching across the Mississippi river to Scott Air Force Base. It was very popular as federal taxpayers paid $348 million for the 40 miles of line that cost $465 million. The next line would run just eight miles and was originally estimated to cost $180 million. Taxpayers will be making bond payments for decades as the final tab for the eight miles of track came in at $676 million.

“If they asked for permission, no one would approve these plans except those who are personally profiting,” asserts former California Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a former gubernatorial candidate and longtime critic of what many have nicknamed the “Browndoggle” in California.

Talk-radio hosts left and right pillory the plan almost daily, none more than the popular LA talk-show hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou of KFI. The team popularized the disparaging term and regularly assert their opinion on air, on their blog and even on social media with the hashtag #nevergonnahappen.

Indeed, Brown is nowhere close to identifying funding for the $68 billion plan and only sold voters on a $9 billion bond issue which assumed most of the original $33 billion estimate would be met by federal taxpayers. Federal funding promises are relatively small and carry conditions, and new earmarks face a tough hurdle in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Under the best assumptions for funding, rail planners have the $9.9 billion approved by voters plus $3.6 billion of possible federal funding. The California High Speed Rail Authority hopes for $18 billion in their business plan. That would still leave a shortfall of more than $40 billion in making the Bakersfield to Fresno “train to nowhere” reality.

The $68 billion price tag makes it the most expensive public works project in U.S. history. Despite rising cost estimates for a far slower train with far less optimistic travel time estimates, train supporters are unapologetic and are moving forward undaunted.

Even in spite of questionable legalities.

Many thought the project was doomed when Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny said the California High-Speed Rail Authority “abused its discretion by approving a funding plan that did not comply with the requirements of the law.”

The ballot issue simply stipulated that funding could not be released until all funding and environmental obstacles are overcome.

And others thought the project was doomed when the CEO resigned just six months after the former state House Speaker and “face” of the political campaign resigned and the price tag estimate was almost $100 billion.

Additional setbacks include a scathing assessment from the Democrat-controlled California Legislative Analyst’s Office that said everything from governance problems and funding problems to the likely need for operating subsidies “would be contrary to explicit provisions in Proposition 1A.”

Others still believe the project is illegal and doomed. The Calwatchdog observes that nine lawsuits still are pending. Two farm groups filed notice of default of a prior settlement agreement. And one farmer asserted to the Fresno Bee, “They’re robbing us blind, it’s that simple.”

Big questions

A big reason for the massive increase in cost of the St. Louis project was the demand by local residents that parts of the light rail line be turned into a subway. Tunneling can easily quadruple costs that include not just digging or “cut and cover,” but almost invariably require the relocation of underground sewers, water lines and other utilities. All those challenges can create major time delays.

California environmentalists have spent decades promoting the protection of land that is locked up from development and encouraging high-density development. The California rail line would have to punch through some of the most densely populated areas of the country. Local residents are already fighting almost every inch of the line and they have a powerful defense in the California Environmental Quality Act, which has been used by residents, labor unions and even businesses attacking plans by potential competitors in order to assert their will.

The San Francisco “peninsula” communities are all concerned about which ones will be forced to suffer a line cutting through major developments and residential areas. Initial plans called for the train to be protected by a 15-foot divider splitting their cities.

Polling consistently shows that California voters now oppose the project. One poll revealed 52 percent of Californians prefer to scrap the proposal entirely rather than putting a new proposal to voters.

Support for high speed rail

Despite the staggering challenges that begin with less than one-half of the funding identified and potentially huge hidden costs, Brown is pushing forward.

The main forces still supporting Brown’s rail dream are labor unions and construction and design firms who funded the ballot issue and dominate control of his beleaguered HSRA.

Support by the Legislature follows support by labor union leaders who secured a monopoly on the project, effectively locking out of the work the 85 percent of construction workers who chose not to belong to a union. The Sacramento Bee observed, “The real beneficiaries of the agreement are the state’s building trades unions.”

Doubt about the project apparently never has gotten Brown’s attention.

At the groundbreaking, he said, “I like trains, I like clean air. It is not expensive. We can afford it.”

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