Appalling California High Speed Rail Cost Explosion

An artist's impression of a proposed high speed rail station in California

I have written several times before about California’s ambitious high speed rail project, most recently in September.

In September, the official estimates of the cost to build this rail line were in the order of $43 billion.  Other estimates guessed it as being more like $65 billion, and a few naysayers suggested the real costs could end up exceeding $80 billion.

To put things in complete perspective, in 2008, when Californian voters were asked to approve a $9 billion bond issue for the first part of the project’s funding, the cost was estimated to be $35.7 billion, with the system expected to be operational by 2020.

So now it is time to update things.  The state is now saying the cost will be $98.5 billion, and it doesn’t expect to see the line operational until 2033.

Yes – in three short years, the cost of the project has nearly trebled, while the time to get the project operational has extended by 13 years.  Each passing year has seen more than four additional years added to the completion date.

Or, to put it more dramatically, in the two months between September and November, the  projected costs have increased from $45 billion to $98.5 billion.

How can this happen?  It isn’t as though millions of dollars haven’t been spent in planning and projections and feasibility studies.  How can the costs escalate so far, so quickly, and even beyond the most pessimistic projections?  And how can the lead times stretch out an unexpected extra 13 years?

There are two more questions that also need to be asked.

1.  Can we place any confidence at all in the new revised cost of $98.5 billion, and the new revised 2033 estimate for when the trains will start operating?  Or will further cost increases and delays continue to occur into the future, the same as they have in the past?

2.  Does it even start to make any sense at all to spend what has grown to now total $100 billion on 800 miles of high speed rail?  Can California afford this?  Does California need this?

There needs to be accountability and consequences experienced by the promoters of this project.  How can one explain such a huge revision in cost and leadtime as an innocent mistake?  At the very best, they’ve shown themselves to be grossly incompetent, and make a laughing stock out of them, their project, and the US as a whole.

However, the Department of Transportation is clearly unfazed by such cost blowouts, and yesterday awarded almost $1 billion in further funding to what is increasingly seeming like nothing more than a bottomless pit and boondoggle of gargantuan proportions.

3 thoughts on “Appalling California High Speed Rail Cost Explosion”

  1. Typical of most government inititives. Put forward a cost low enough to be approved then get project past point of no return and then real costs start to show up. The problem with the high speed rail system is the design of the cities. They are designed for the automobile and without a whole infrastructure in place no one will use it. Once you get to a station the cities are so spread out and the infrastructure is not there to get you beyond that point without a car.

  2. David: As a native Bostonian (OK of course I left in 1950) I thought “The Big Dig” was the worst case of cost overrun. But at least that served a purpose as traffic was in total gridlock in Boston and areas near it. This is just plain NUTS. CA is broke, the US treasury is broke and we continue on like money is there for everything. Keep on writing about this. Maybe someone will listen…Don

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