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This Is Why We Don't Have High-Speed Rail in the U.S.

The $33 billion rail line in California is too big to fail, too unwieldy to succeed.

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Construction workers in the Frenso Trench build a portion of the high-speed railway line which will cross beneath CA Hwy 180 in Fresno, California, on May 8, 2019
Construction workers in the Frenso Trench build a portion of the high-speed railway line which will cross beneath CA Hwy 180 in Fresno, California, on May 8, 2019
Photo: Frederic J. BROWN / AFP (Getty Images)

Fourteen years ago, California had a dream: To connect the state’s two largest urban centers via the nation’s first high-speed bullet train, cutting the travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco down to a brisk two hours and forty minutes. It would cost billions and take years, but everyone agreed it was a better decision than sinking money into yet another freeway. Now, almost a decade and a half later, construction has begun on a project seemingly all but certainly doomed to fail.

Building in California was never going to be easy between the fault lines mountains and deserts that dot Southern California, but local politics made it so much harder than it needed to be. The New York Times has a really good answer for Americans who come back from vacation in Japan or Europe and wonder where all those wonderful, zippy bullet trains are: local politics. From the Times:

Now, as the nation embarks on a historic, $1 trillion infrastructure building spree, the tortured effort to build the country’s first high-speed rail system is a case study in how ambitious public works projects can become perilously encumbered by political compromise, unrealistic cost estimates, flawed engineering and a determination to persist on projects that have become, like the crippled financial institutions of 2008, too big to fail.

A review of hundreds of pages of documents, engineering reports, meeting transcripts and interviews with dozens of key political leaders show that the detour through the Mojave Desert was part of a string of decisions that, in hindsight, have seriously impeded the state’s ability to deliver on its promise to create a new way of transporting people in an era of climate change.

Political compromises, the records show, produced difficult and costly routes through the state’s farm belt. They routed the train across a geologically complex mountain pass in the Bay Area. And they dictated that construction would begin in the center of the state, in the agricultural heartland, not at either of the urban ends where tens of millions of potential riders live.


The line, approved in 2008, was supposed to be completed by 2020 at an estimated cost of $33 billion, but that obviously hasn’t happened. Construction on just the 171-mile “starter line” isn’t expected to be complete until way after 2030, and cost estimates are now up towards $113 billion. Even 2030 is optimistic:

The rail authority said it has accelerated the pace of construction on the starter system, but at the current spending rate of $1.8 million a day, according to projections widely used by engineers and project managers, the train could not be completed in this century.

“We would make some different decisions today,” said Tom Richards, a developer from the Central Valley city of Fresno who now chairs the authority. He said project executives have managed to work through the challenges and have a plan that will, for the first time, connect 85 percent of California’s residents with a fast, efficient rail system. “I think it will be successful,” he said.


The entire project is now under threat from Republicans and Democrats alike, which is apt considering it was Republicans and Democrats at the local level who turned this potentially country-changing piece on infrastructure into a boondoggle which may never see completion. Read the whole story here at the Times.