If you want to gage how far we are from fiscal sanity, you need only look to the California High Speed Rail Authority. It is emblematic of modern government, perhaps, to have a transportation bureaucracy for a form of transportation that doesn't exist and isn't going to exist.
The CHSR (let's pronounce it CHESS-RAY) has an optimistic trip-planner. It promises that, once the bullet train is running, you'll be able to travel between Los Angeles and Fresno in an hour and a half and save 191 pounds of carbon emissions on the trip. Flatulence aside, does anyone in LA really want to go to Fresno? I note that the trip planner has "visualizations" that not only show the bullet train racing along imaginary track, but also show buildings rising magically around the station. They aren't wasting public money on graphics.
Here's the problem: a high speed rail line would be ruinously expensive. The initial cost estimate for the system was $33 billion. Current estimates put it at nearly $100 billion. Where is that money going to come from? Charles Lane at the WaPo explains how Washington is helping.
Thanks to federal policy, if California does not start work on the rail line by Sept. 30, it will lose an additional $3.3 billion in federal money — possibly dooming the system.
But the Catch-22 is that, if California does start building without securing future funding, it could end up with a $6 billion track to nowhere. As the Peer Review Group (PRG) explains, that's because, for economic-stimulus reasons, Washington insisted that California build the initial stretch between two outposts in the lightly populated San Joaquin Valley.
In other words, without any guarantee that massive funds will be available to complete the project, the Federal Government has put pressure on California to start building the project this year. I am guessing that the snazzy CHESS-RAY logo doesn't count. At the same time, it is compelling California to begin by linking "outposts" in the San Joaquin Valley. Okay, so for $6 billion, you'll be able to get from nowhere to nowhere, mighty fast. After that, maybe, more gold plated track will be laid.
Does this make any kind of sense? The LA Times helps answer that question.
In a scathing critique that could further jeopardize political support for California's proposed $98.5-billion bullet train, a key independent review panel is recommending that state officials postpone borrowing billions of dollars to start building the first section of track this year.
In a report Tuesday, [The California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group] created by state law to help safeguard the public's interest raised serious doubts about almost every aspect of the project and concluded that the current plan "is not financially feasible." As a result, the panel said, it "cannot at this time recommend that the Legislature approve the appropriation of bond proceeds for this project."
Although the panel has no legal power to stop the project, its strong criticism, coupled with recent polls showing public opinion has shifted against the proposal, is giving some key political leaders pause.
Governor Jerry Brown is in no mood to let the public's interest or public opinion put a damper on the project. As Lane puts it:
To Brown, the warnings lose validity through repetition. The PRG report "does not appear to add any arguments that are new or compelling enough to suggest a change of course," his spokesman said.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has declared that "we will not be dissuaded by the naysayers and the critics," told me to discount the PRG report.
The Governor is remarkably immune from reality. He is not without powerful allies. Again from the LA Times:
The Obama administration vowed [last month] at a House committee meeting in Washington that it would not back down from its support of California's bullet train project despite attacks from critics who alleged it is tainted by political corruption.
This is five kinds of crackers. As Lane points out, the project is a boondoggle. The Washington Post can see it. High speed has been a fiscal disaster nearly everywhere it has been tried. On its own merits the California project is a disaster in search of a place to happen.
Of course, there is also the consideration that California is facing a fiscal crisis from which even a sober and responsible government would have trouble rescuing it. To put it mildly, the U.S. as a whole is in the same situation. Yet Governor Jerry Brown and President Barack Obama want to invest billions in a bullet train that would link two places where cows outnumber people.
That, gentle readers, is a gage of how far from fiscal sanity we are.