Jacob Heilbrunn

President Obama And California's High-Speed Rail Fiasco

President Obama has been pushing high-speed rail as one of the answers to America's technological future. Republicans have been pushing back, saying that it's a classic big-government boondoggle. They may be onto something. If California is anything to go by, the high-speed-rail project may be too ambitious and, ultimately, a fiscal disaster.

In California, unlike in many areas of the country, it's not really a partisan issue. The basic problem is whether the idea is fiscally feasible. Mounting evidence suggests it is not and the Obama administration, along with Governor Jerry Brown, is backing a bogus project that will saddle the state with enormous debts and never be completed on time. "We won't be dissuaded by the naysayers and the critics," Transportation Secretary Roy LaHood announced in December at a congressional hearing. He says private investors will help pay for the project, over and above the $4 billion promised by the federal government. Who are the investors? He doesn't say, most likely because he has no idea who would.

For a start, the estimates of the cost of the project in California, which is supposed to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles—a worthy aim—has tripled. As the estimates continue to soar, the popularity of the project is sinking. Although voters approved a $9.9 billion bond measure for the project in 2008, they're now getting cold feet, according to new polls. And well they should.

For another questionable aspect of the project is the estimated costs of not performing it. The champions of rail say that the alternative—increased use of highways and airports--would be about $171 billion. But as the Los Angeles Times reports,

Already, transportation researchers, government officials and watchdog groups are saying the $171-billion claim is based on such exaggerated estimates, misleading statements and erroneous assumptions that it is "divorced from any reality." "There is some dishonesty in the methodology," said Samer Madanat, director of UC Berkeley's Institute of Transportation Studies, the top research center of its type in the nation. "I don't trust an estimate like this." Until November, California High-Speed Rail Authority officials were asserting that the alternative cost of highway and airport construction would be $100 billion. Earlier predictions were billions lower. When the estimate for the bullet train project recently hit $98.5 billion, the authority ratcheted the highway and airport cost up to $171 billion.

Who's supplying the numbers for these costs? Private contractor Parsons Brinkerhoff, the Times says, which helped pay for the campaign for the bond fund back in 2008. It also has 108 employees working on the rail project in California. At a minimum, conflicts of interest would seem to be rife.

None of this appears to have deterred the Obama administration. President Obama wants to head into the 2012 campaign by bragging about the progress his stimulus package has made in preparing America for a new, high-tech future in California and elsewhere. Rail can be an effective way to move people in dense urban areas and cut down on pollution and congestion. The idea of high-speed rail is enticing and attractive. Its a laudable aim. But it's not one that the California project appears on track to perform.