California High Speed Rail Project: A Success Or A Boondoggle?

The California high speed rail project has certainly been a major talk of discussion since 2008 when voters first approved the project. Californians were very excited to get a project of this magnitude finally off the ground. The idea of building a high speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco that could complete travel in 2 hours and 40 minutes seemed very appealing. The train could reach a top speed of 220 mph along the way.

In 2008, voters approved Proposition 1A, which would fund the first $10 billion dollars of the train project. The total estimated cost of the entire project was $32 billion dollars. The California high speed rail project would cover several cities, including San Francisco, Sacramento, San Jose, Fresno, Bakersfield, Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego.

In the years following voter approval, California began land acquisition and completing environmental studies. This is where they began to run into several problems.

The first problem was the cost of the project. Over the years costs began to rise exponentially and eventually hit $120 billion dollars. However, that did not stop them from beginning the California high speed project. But before they did begin, they had to cut the project’s budget considerably. In doing so, they eliminated Orange County and San Diego from the project, as well as San Jose. So now the high speed rail project will not cover the cities voters agreed upon.

The second problem was changing the speed of the train. They agreed to slow the operating speed of the train considerably, saving on utility costs. The new speed came nowhere near the original 220 mph that was promised in Prop 1A. The new budget for the project is currently set at $68 billion dollars, far more than the $32 billion dollars voters approved.

With the decrease in speed, the 2 hour and 40 minute train just became quite a bit longer. Some estimates have put times as high as 5 hours. It currently takes between 6 to 7 hours currently by car. Would people looking to travel that route take the high speed rail over drying or flying? Likely not.

Opening day for the high speed rail is still over a decade away. Right now the projected opening day for the first segment of the high speed rail will be in 2029. And that’s only the segment between Fresno and Bakersfield. When you consider the cost of inflation, there is absolutely no chance the high speed rail will come in at or under budget. And it’s now nowhere close to being anything like the project voters approved for in 2008.

Do you think Californians are the only taxpayers on the hook for this project? Nope! If you pay federal taxes, your tax dollars are also funding this project. The California high speed rail project received $3.5 billion dollars from President Obama from the 2009 stimulus package. The money was supposed to go to other states to build high speed rail, but many states rejected and returned the money because they didn’t want it (to be clear, they would have had to pay that money back if they accepted it). So when the states returned their portion of the money, they decided to give the money to California, and they gladly accepted it.

$13 billion of the $68 billion is funded as of right now. California it admits it has no idea where funding will come from, but they honestly don’t care, they are moving forward with it anyway. As mentioned earlier, that $13 billion will fund the portion of the line between Fresno and Bakersfield, 2 areas that are not heavily populated in comparison to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

So why continue to move forward with this project? For California governor Jerry Brown, it’s about his legacy and what people will remember him for. He is currently serving his final term as governor. His father Pat was also governor of California previously and he wants to leave behind a big legacy like he did. I understand the ambition, but would you the taxpayer like to leave this project as your legacy? Absolutely not.

On top of all of that, California has a major budget crisis currently ongoing. It’s estimated that their yearly budget is $19 billion dollars short every year. And they are pursuing a $68 billion dollar high speed rail system? That’s exactly what’s happening. It’s very sad watching it all unfold. And it should make you angry as well as your tax dollars are being used for this project. And that $68 billion dollar project is likely to inflate to a much higher number by the time it’s finished.

A California high speed rail system could really work in the state, but not the way it’s currently setup. Many people who voted for the project are now against it. Even those who campaigned for it back in 2008 are now turning against it. It has become one of the nation’s biggest boondoggles in recent memory, and certainly one that Californians won’t forget for a long time.

And there’s a good chance that the California high speed rail project will never be finished. And if that happens, you can take all of those billions of dollars and flush it right down the drain. It will be used as an example of how high speed rail will never work in the United States and that’s really sad. Great example to the rest of the country, California. Well done (or not done).

Check out my master plan for the nationwide bullet train and other transportation networks.

You can read the entire plan of the California high speed rail project here on their website.

Brian Cole

I'm Brian and I'm the founder of TransportationOfTomorrow.com. I have a strong passion for fixing America's transportation infrastructure problem and traffic flow issues. I ultimately want to see the American economy grow as far as it will go, create massive amounts of jobs, and in that way help the quality of how people live.