Our Sunday Long Read is the NY Times profile by Ralph Vartabedian on how greed, techbro ego, and good old-fashioned political corruption killed high speed rail for a generation in California and the United States.
Building the nation’s first bullet train, which would connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, was always going to be a formidable technical challenge, pushing through the steep mountains and treacherous seismic faults of Southern California with a series of long tunnels and towering viaducts.
But the design for the nation’s most ambitious infrastructure project was never based on the easiest or most direct route. Instead, the train’s path out of Los Angeles was diverted across a second mountain range to the rapidly growing suburbs of the Mojave Desert — a route whose most salient advantage appeared to be that it ran through the district of a powerful Los Angeles county supervisor.
The dogleg through the desert was only one of several times over the years when the project fell victim to political forces that have added billions of dollars in costs and called into question whether the project can ever be finished.
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 pros and cons of these routing choices have been debated for years. Only now, though, is it becoming apparent how costly the political choices have been. Collectively, they turned a project that might have been built more quickly and cheaply into a behemoth so expensive that, without a major new source of funding, there is little chance it can ever reach its original goal of connecting California’s two biggest metropolitan areas in two hours and 40 minutes.
When California voters first approved a bond issue for the project in 2008, the rail line was to be completed by 2020, and its cost seemed astronomical at the time — $33 billion — but it was still considered worthwhile as an alternative to the state’s endless web of freeways and the carbon emissions generated in one of the nation’s busiest air corridors..
Fourteen years later, construction is now underway on part of a 171-mile “starter” line connecting a few cities in the middle of California, which has been promised for 2030. But few expect it to make that goal.
Meanwhile, costs have continued to escalate. When the California High-Speed Rail Authority issued its new 2022 draft business plan in February, it estimated an ultimate cost as high as $105 billion. Less than three months later, the “final plan” raised the estimate to $113 billion.
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.
It will never, ever be finished.
There are too many industries dedicated to destroying mass transportation in America: automakers, energy companies, homebuilders, fast food chains, you name it, it's because most Americans drive there on the way to and from work daily. You make a mass transportation system like high speed rail in a huge state like California, other states will want to do the same.
So turning it into a boondoggle that costs hundreds of billions will be proof positive that the American way of cars and trucks forever is the only path forward.