The high-speed rail ballot measure that California voters approved in 2008 made two promises: first, that fares would cover operating costs; and second, that trains would carry passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in just two hours and forty minutes. The first promise will be hard to keep but no one will know for certain until and unless a rail line is actually built.
But the state seems ready to break the second promise right now. The High-Speed Rail Authority has proposed to save $30 billion by using existing tracks, at conventional speeds, in the LA and Bay areas, leaving the trains to operate at high speeds only between the metro areas. This means the fastest trains will still take far longer than two hours and forty minutes.
Of course, saving $30 billion means the rail line would still cost at least $25 billion more than the estimates published when voters cast their ballots.
The Obama administration is so desperate to have high-speed rail that it waived a September 30, 2012 deadline for construction to begin, even though the deadline was set by Congress and it isn’t clear that the administration has the authority to change it. That’s lucky for rail proponents, as the state admits that it can’t begin construction until 2013 at the earliest.
Rail opponents are skeptical that the authority’s new plan will actually save the $30 billion claimed. But at least one legislative observer projects that the legislature has the votes needed to allow the authority to sell the bonds so construction can begin. If so, state taxpayers can look forward to paying $700 million a year in interest alone on the initial bond sale, which will only cover about 10 or 15 percent of the total cost of the project.