All aboard California’s high-speed train to nowhere

Brendan Thomas Contributor
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A variety of media outlets and government officials are ecstatic about a report on California’s proposed $68.4 billion high-speed rail system, an Obama administration infrastructure darling.

Cost estimates are “reasonable,” shout headlines in The Hill and Businessweek. “The GAO’s report is extremely clear that the Authority’s processes and methodologies … are sound,” boasts the California High Speed Rail Authority.

The “Authority” is the state planning agency coordinating one of the most expensive transportation projects in U.S. history, started with stimulus and state bond money, to run between L.A. and San Francisco through Central Valley farms.

But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has fingered major flaws, echoing opponents of the project – but supporters don’t seem to care.  An Authority press release pretends it gets “high marks.” Technically, though, it gets D’s in most categories and never hits the high mark.

GAO pokes holes in the Authority’s math. Examples of foreign high-speed rail or Amtrak don’t work. There’s not enough documentation, either. Federal overseers can’t reproduce calculations — basic high school science.

A bureaucratic turf war has erupted over a “risk and uncertainty analysis” missing from the Authority’s plans, too. Without it, the Authority might overlook problems, says the GAO. Looks like that already happened: The Authority hasn’t secured a quarter of the land it needs to start laying track on a first section of rail, scheduled for June — just two months away.

The missing analysis, a “best practice” for everything from stocking office supplies to missile defense, pops up repeatedly in the GAO report. The Authority counters that it had to spend stimulus money too quickly to pay any attention. Besides, the Federal Rail Administration said it didn’t have to. The Department of Transportation says the GAO’s published instructions came too late or too early, whichever.

So the Authority relied on “professional judgment.” Now, says the GAO, “We cannot be assured that the contingencies are accurately calculated, and more importantly, what level of confidence we can have in the cost estimates.”

Lately, the Authority has been flubbing a lot of cost estimates. In 2011, it unveiled a $98 billion version of the high-speed rail, but the figure gave Californians whiplash. A few months later, the Authority released a different plan for a cheaper (in the billions) bastardized rail of old track near L.A and San Francisco, with some new stuff between.

Thing is, that’s not what California voters approved. Their Proposition 1A required that trains would have to move at 200 mph, but they are currently projected to chug along 20 mph under that. (220 mph was the original goal.)

Legally, California’s high-speed rail project should be dead in its tracks, because it’s en route to operating subsidies, too — another no-no. “California’s Democrat supermajority are pulling all the levers and changing the rules, as a payoff to the public unions that elected them,” Katy Grimes, investigator at the free-market Pacific Research Institute, tells The Daily Caller.

The GAO report doubts private investment will come without such “revenue guarantees.” There’s no model for public-private partnerships in the U.S. They’ve failed before in Texas and Florida.

What kind of investor would build a $68.4 business with so little forethought? We know at least one …

The Authority also flubbed its ridership estimates as well, says GAO. It cherry-picked survey respondents and based more assumptions on the 2000 census. There’s one of those every 10 years, and it’s 2013 already. The American Association for Public Opinion Research says the Authorities’ ridership models are probably biased.

Strangely, points out the GAO, when the Authority’s plan shifted to old rail, its ridership and revenue estimates should have dropped, because Los Angeles and San Francisco, big markets, were served a stale muffin. But those estimates, respectively, went up by as much as 26 and 16 percent.

That’s because potential high-speed rail riders exist in a fictional universe, where they “respond favorably to a hypothetical new mode, when in reality it may be more difficult to change habitual behavior,” says the GAO. Who knows what these wild and crazy respondents will do next.

Maybe math: A flight from L.A. to San Francisco takes about half the time as a hypothetical train ride does, but only costs 17 percent more. Not a bad deal.

California’s car culture will remain for the indefinite future, as well. The California Department of Transportation told the GAO “current highway transportation planning has not … included consideration of high-speed rail,” because it’s still early.

That’s right, California’s left hand (highway planning) and right (high-speed rail) barely know what the other’s doing. Most localities along the train route lack development plans for stations as well.

The U.S. Congressman who requested the GAO report should read it with all the lights on, because it’s scary One of them, Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican from Modesto, tells TheDC via email, “What’s most concerning is the uncertainty facing the project’s funding.”

Well, that’s true. The project hasn’t received federal funding since Republicans gained the House of Representatives in 2010, par for the course. California localities also owe $5 billion in bonds that they haven’t coughed up, private investment is nil, and now the state is trying to head off court challenges to the crucial $8.6 billion Prop. 1A.

Californians seem to be waking up. A poll from the University of Southern California and the L.A. Times says 59 percent would vote against the bond measure today. Meanwhile, the Authority, DOT and their boosters in the media are trying to lull them back to sleep.

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