California’s Zombie Bullet Train Lurches Along – OpEd


You know a government spending project has run off its rails when the New York Times criticizes it.

That’s what happened in its Sunday, October 9, 2022 edition, as reporter Ralph Vartabedian reports how years of mismanagement by state government officials turned California’s proposed bullet train into a zombie project.

“There is nothing but problems on the project,” the speaker of the State Assembly, Anthony Rendon, complained recently.

The Times’s review, though, revealed that political deals created serious obstacles in the project from the beginning. Speaking candidly on the subject for the first time, some of the high-speed rail authority’s past leaders say the project may never work.

“Unless rail authority managers can improve cost controls and find significant new sources of funding, they said, the project is likely to grind to a halt in future decades.

That’s saying something for a project whose funding was first approved by California voters in 2008. The project is already in its second decade of development. How many more decades do they think it will lumber on?

Doomed from the Beginning

More damning are the things each former project leader has said about California’s zombie bullet train project.

“I was totally naïve when I took the job,” said Michael Tennenbaum, a former Wall Street investment banker who was the first chairman of the rail authority 20 years ago. “I spent my time and didn’t succeed. I realized the system didn’t work. I just wasn’t smart enough. I don’t know how they can build it now.”

Dan Richard, the longest-serving rail chairman, said starting the project with an early goal of linking Los Angeles and San Francisco was “a strategic mistake.” An initial line between Los Angeles and San Diego, he said, would have made more sense.

And Quentin Kopp, another former rail chairman who earlier served as a state senator and a Superior Court judge, said the system would be running today but for the many bad political decisions that have made it almost impossible to build.

“I don’t think it is an existing project,” he said. “It is a loser.”

Yet it continues, lurching along like the zombie it has become.

Federal Funding Keeps California’s Zombie Bullet Train Going

It’s not just a state government spending mess. California’s bullet train project has also become a fiscal sinkhole for federal funds.

Federal grants of $3.5 billion for what was supposed to be a shovel-ready project pushed the state to prematurely issue the first construction contracts when it lacked any land to build on. It resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in contractor delay claims.

“The consequence of starting in the Central Valley is not having a system,” said Rich Tolmach, who headed the nonprofit California Rail Foundation that promotes public rail transit and was deeply involved in the early days of the project. “It will never be operable.”

Strange how the people who know it best are the ones who have the least faith it deserves to be kept alive. Meanwhile, the zombie train’s projected cost has ballooned from $33 billion in 2008 to $113 billion today.

How many more decades can Californians afford that kind of inflation for a train that never comes?

This article was published by The Beacon

Craig Eyermann

Craig Eyermann is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. He is also the creator of Government Cost Calculator. He received his M.S. in mechanical engineering from New Mexico State University and M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix, having received a B.S. in both mechanical and aerospace engineering from the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

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