Moving in for the Kill–or to Be Fleeced?

The Voice of Orange County reports that opponents of California’s high-speed rail boondoggle are “moving in for the kill.” But the article presents no clear path for killing the train to nowhere. While there are lawsuits, opponents in Congress, and critics in the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, the final decision will be made by the Democrat-dominated state legislature, which takes its cue from Governor Jerry Brown, who has endorsed the spending of $7 billion on a rail line that few will ever use.

The latest objective poll shows that 37 percent of the people who voted for high-speed rail in 2008 have changed their minds and would vote against it today now that the cost has doubled and the admitted benefits declined. (Only 3 percent of people who voted no say they would vote yes today.)

Sorry, voters, you got suckered into endorsing an open-ended plan that allows the state rail authority to spend as much as it wants for as long as it wants to build a rail line. The only restriction in the ballot measure was that taxpayer funds could not be used to subsidize operations, so the rail authority can spend $100 billion, $200 billion, or more of your money building it and then say, “Whoops, we can’t afford to operate it unless you give us more money. You wouldn’t want the money we spent so far to go to waste, would you?

Unless the state legislature calls a halt sometime in the next 10 months, we can expect the authority to spend $7 billion on a train to nowhere in the hope that, by the time that money runs out, the Democrats will have retaken Congress and the White House and appropriate another few billion, then a few billion more, and lo and behold California will have a high-speed rail line–by 2040 or so.

For the record, this is far from the first time voters have been fooled by an open-ended tax plan. One other example if Denver’s FasTracks rail plan, which called for spending $4.7 billion to build six new rail lines by 2017. Soon after the vote, the price tag climbed to $7.9 billion and the transit agency said that, given that tax revenues were less than anticipated, all six lines would not open until 2030. Now the agency is thinking of going back to the voters for even more taxes in 2012, but if voters turn down the proposal, it won’t stop building the lines, it will just keep spending for as long as it takes. Plus, in this case, the taxes can also be spent subsidizing operations, so the agency will get to spend huge amounts of money forever.

Let this be a lesson to voters everywhere: do not support rail projects unless there are clear limits on cost, timetables, and operating subsidies, all of which will require a revote if they are exceeded. One transit proposal that included such limits was the Seattle monorail, which promised to return to the voters if costs went up. The costs went up and voters voted it down. California voters are not likely to get the same opportunity.


About The Antiplanner

The Antiplanner is an economist with forty years of experience critiquing public land, urban, transportation, and other government plans.
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7 Responses to Moving in for the Kill–or to Be Fleeced?

  1. C. P. Zilliacus says:

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    Let this be a lesson to voters everywhere: do not support rail projects unless there are clear limits on cost, timetables, and operating subsidies, all of which will require a revote if they are exceeded.

    I suggest that the better approach is for voters to not support any new passenger rail projects at all (at least not in the United States).

  2. LazyReader says:

    Seattle Center Monorail is operated by a private contractor, Seattle Monorail Services (SMS), which took over operation from the City in June 1994. Operating profits, which can be as much as $750,000 per year in a good year, are split between the City and SMS. It claims to be the “only fully self-sufficient public transit system” in the United States still I’m skeptical of the claims and wonder if anyone has any information on it. It receives 7,000 daily riders. After voting down and killing an expansion of monorail lines, that hasn’t stopped them from another project. Their proposal for the Seattle Streetcar Network will be a system stretching across town. Nevermind the cities infamous Sounder light rail. The easy ride on Sounder comes at a dear price to taxpayers. Startup costs for the north and south lines were twice the original estimate reaching 1.2 billion dollars. Operating costs also exceeded predictions, so that the average one-way trip on Sounder last year required a $14 public subsidy, in addition to the average $2.39 passenger fare. One engineer who advises rail opponents, has calculated that if the costs of construction and trains are added in, the average subsidy through 2030 will be $45 for a trip on the south line and $68 on the north line. The city of Kent is encouraging condominium projects, to place more riders near its station. Metro Transit likely has sent more feeder buses to the train stations, but so far those haven’t been a major source of riders. Sounder only carries 9700 people daily. That was minute compared to the measure in 2007 they voted down against Sound Transit that promised to build 50 miles of light rail. At the time Seattle’s proposed lines were going to cost $250 million per mile, making then 125 times more expensive at moving people than a freeway lane.

  3. the highwayman says:

    Can somebody remind me what the results of the referendum on the interstate highway program were and what the spending cap was?

  4. the highwayman says:

    CPZ wrote; I suggest that the better approach is for voters to not support any new passenger rail projects at all.

    THWM: Though what’s good for your masters in Big Oil & the auto industry. Isn’t good for citizens.

  5. MJ says:

    Like I said, bait-and-switch. California is screwed.

  6. the highwayman says:

    Bush screwed us with Iraq but, you’re not complaing about that.

    Any ways, HSR is viable though, the problem is how to bring it to fruition.

    Will consultants design some thing that is over engineered crap or some thing reasonable like using the center of I-5 & SR-99?

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