Let’s Talk About California’s “High-Speed” Rail

The man behind Prop. 1A now says the convention rail is “almost a crime.”

Retired Judge and icon of California politics Quentin Kopp joins The Bob Zadek Show for the full hour, Sunday, 2/4 – 8–9am PACIFIC. Listen Live on 860AM — The Answer, or check your local listings in Seattle, Sacramento, Portland and Denver.

California has problems. After years of drought, last year’s deluge caused the Oroville Dam to burst, costing nearly $1 billion. Meanwhile, the welfare rolls are swelling, and the millionaires on whom the state depends for its tax revenues are leaving the state in droves. This would seem to be a time to get back to basics, but proponents of the high-speed rail are plowing ahead with the project despite delays, lawsuits, and cost overruns. The original bond measure — Proposition 1A — passed in 2008, with a slim majority of Californians voting for a state of the art, 220mph, electrified train from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It was to be partly funded by taxpayer money, and partly by private investment.

Now, the project has morphed into a patchwork of conventional and high-speed rail, and encountered serious issues with the earliest and allegedly easiest stages of construction. There are now big questions for those private investors, who were supposed to emerge to foot the remainder of the bill for what is no longer the high-speed project it was supposed to be. For these reasons and more, one of the proposition’s original advocates — Judge Quentin Kopp — has turned on the idea. In fact, he now says it’s “almost a crime.”

Kopp is a retired judge and former Chairman of the High Speed Rail Authority. He served as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and in the California State Senate, and will join the show to explain how the high-speed rail has gotten so far off track.

Audit the Rail

Despite the romance around rail, and putting aside the few successful bullet trains in high-density areas like France and Japan, it remains essentially a 19th-century technology. California’s proposed rail also involves a massive land grab to create a much slower system than those areas, which would be unlikely to turn a profit once built.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Reason Magazine reports:

Since 2008, lawsuits have multiplied, private investors have fled, and even the official price tag has nearly doubled, from $33 billion to $64 billion. When the legislature cleared the way for the Rail Authority to begin selling the voter-approved bonds in early 2017 to fund construction, the agency declared it a “milestone.”

For those citing carbon offsets associated with taking cars off the road, it turns out the reverse may be true. Even relying on optimistic assumptions about the number of vehicles it would replace, the rail would have to operate for 80 years to make up for the emissions involved in its construction.

Republicans and a small segment of democratic legislatures are calling for an audit to determine whether the project should proceed. Cost overruns already threaten the completion of the first segment to be built from San Jose to Bakersfield. This fact, combined with the already perilous state of California’s finances, has Victor Davis Hanson (@VDHanson) speculating in The San Jose Mercury News that future Californians “will wonder who built the mysterious Stonehenge-like monoliths — and why?”

The same Mercury News has called for the project to be scrapped, while the Los Angeles Times — more optimistically — is merely calling for a re-assessment, along the lines that Kopp is advocating:

[W]e shouldn’t be surprised that the bullet train will cost more than voters were promised in 2008, [but] that’s no reason to push ahead on the same, exceptionally overpriced track. Instead, as the authority wraps up its latest plan for how to move this project forward, it’s a good idea to have an audit that examines how the agency got to this point. And it should be done now, while there is new leadership ready to make changes to the process and, if needed, the project itself.

Can California Lead on Transportation Again?

In spite of the set-backs and changes to the original plan, Quentin Kopp remains a believer in high speed rail in California.

In a 2010 op-ed, he made a compelling rebuttal to Prop. 1A opponents, encapsulating the vision as follows:

Throughout California history, our economic might and transportation advances have led to progress and development — first with construction of railroads and ports, and later by large public investments in highways and airports. Now, California must connect our major metropolitan cities with an economically viable, environmentally friendly, sustainable high-speed rail system.
Since introducing the legislation creating the California High Speed Rail Authority in 1996, I’ve pursued the most logical transportation option for Californians, a 220 mph train system carrying passengers from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles.…
…California’s economic sturdiness, vitality and environmental sustainability depend upon capitalizing on the benefits of high-speed rail. Don’t be tricked by those seeking to usurp the will of voters and drive California into Third World status by denying a transportation alternative possessed by most of the civilized world.

But as Reason points out, California can still have world-class transportation without the state raising additional funds to complete a less-than-perfect system:

The train, if it ever comes to pass, will also be competing with air travel at a time when a new generation of quiet supersonic planes is about to take flight. Autonomous vehicles will soon give passengers the same freedom to sleep, work, or read as train travelers. And then there’s Elon Musk’s plans for hyperloop pod transport in a near-vacuum tube at speeds up to 800 miles per hour.

If California is going to remain on the cutting edge, perhaps it should be looking beyond the decades-old high speed rail technology to truly innovative transportation options. This Sunday (2/4), find out what those options might be, and tune in to hear Kopp’s case for high speed rail (just not the one that’s being built) and call in with your questions to (424) BOB-SHOW.