Current High Speed Rail Plan Will Cost Too Much, Deliver Too Little

By Elizabeth Goldstein Alexis, Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design

***Editor’s Note: The following article is one viewpoint on California’s High-Speed Rail project. On Jan. 30, an opposing viewpoint was published in the article “High-Speed Rail Will Provide Many Benefits in the Central Valley.”

Governor Brown is right. We need a robust rail network but it will cost too much and deliver too little unless we fundamentally rethink how we plan and build infrastructure in California.

Too often, political considerations are not part of a project; they are the project. Project sponsors rarely have the staff to fully manage work so they hire multiple firms to plan, engineer and oversee other consultants. When problems arise, blame is hard to assess so accountability is rare. We hope the next project is better, but avoid the type of self-assessment that change requires.

This strategy is unsustainable for high speed rail. The project will either fail in some fashion or we will have to change our way of doing business.

So what went wrong?

There are angry farmers, but they are a result of the project’s flaws, not the root cause.

For the last ten years, planning has been done by multiple layers of consultants with limited state oversight, with different teams for every 50–100 miles of rail. The multitude of consultants made fundraising for the bond campaign easy, but is unworkable.

The challenge is magnified because the route chosen is also unworkable. Details matter intensely for high speed rail. One small change affects miles of alignment. A decision about where tracks would go was made before detailed study of the area was done so countless changes have been required to stay clear of things like oil fields or wind turbines. Changes have required changes. At the same time, officials refused to consider the types of changes that might avoid problems rather than cause them.

When the project’s flaws became headline news, officials chose to attack critics. At all levels of the project organization, problems were ignored or even hidden to avoid bad press. Minor problems have become billion dollar overruns.

So far, every attempt to fix the project has just dug a deeper hole. There are ways out of this mess, but are we up for the challenge?

Elizabeth Goldstein Alexis is a Co-founder of CARRD (Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design) a non-partisan, volunteer, grassroots group advocating for transparency, accountability and effective community involvement with transportation projects. The opinions in this article are presented in the spirit of spurring discussion and reflect those of the author and not necessarily the Treasurer, his office or the State of California.