Friday, October 02, 2009

High-Speed Rail to Nowhere

This morning's San Francisco Examiner reports that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is submitting a bid for $4.5 billion in federal porkulus funds to get California's high-speed rail project moving forward. Although voters had already approved the sale of $10 billion in bonds for that purpose, the state's terrible credit rating and drowning debt have made it impossible to sell the bonds, and the rail project is languishing. Apparently there just aren't many folks dumb enough to bet on California's government straightening itself out any time soon.

So now the governor is begging Washington for the down payment on a system that is projected (by the California High-Speed Rail Authority) to cost up to $35 billion when all is said and done. Unfortunately, there are two major problems with even this official state forecast. First, the ultimate cost is likely to mushroom as all public project costs do when bureaucrats' rosy predictions run into reality. And second, today's estimates assume the project will actually ever get done. As in, completed. Operational. Functional.

The Bay Area suffered a catastrophic earthquake in 1989 in which sections of the Bay Bridge's eastern span between Oakland and Yerba Buena Island collapsed. Twenty years later, a replacement span still is not complete. Even worse, state engineers actually knew 30 years before the '89 quake that the Bridge's eastern span was vulnerable in the event of a major temblor. In other words, it's been 50 years -- half a CENTURY -- since California first identified a critical, life or death issue with a massive economic impact on the state, and yet the project to replace the troubled span still is not complete.

And back to the cost overrun issue, the Bay Bridge project is a cautionary tale. In less than a year in 2005, the project costs skyrocketed from the state's $300 million estimate to about $6.5 billion.

What chance does the state have of actually finishing a high-speed rail system across the entire state, and doing it for its current cost estimate of $35 billion?

No chance.