California's much-vaunted high-speed rail project is, to put it bluntly, a train wreck. Intended to demonstrate the state's commitment to sustainable, cutting-edge transportation systems, and to show that the U.S. can build rail networks as sophisticated as those in Europe and Asia, it is instead a monument to the ways poor planning, mismanagement and political interference can screw up major public works. For anti-government conservatives, it is also a powerful argument for scrapping President Obama's national rail plans, rescinding federal funding and canceling the project before any more money is wasted on it.
We couldn't disagree more. We pointed out back in 2008, before voters approved nearly $10 billion in state bonds to fund the project under Proposition 1A, that it would be more expensive and difficult to build than its backers were letting on. But we endorsed it anyway because of the economic and environmental benefits the train could bring. The benefits still outweigh the costs, and none of the $43-billion project's troubles are insurmountable. Fortunately, a report last week from the state Legislative Analyst's Office offers strong recommendations for getting the system back on track.
The train's biggest problems can be laid at the feet of the High Speed Rail Authority, which is overseeing its construction. Inexperienced board members appointed by the governor and Legislature on the basis of political patronage rather than expertise have made a host of poor decisions. Not the least boneheaded of these is the board's plan to take a circuitous route from Los Angeles to Bakersfield by veering through Palmdale and Lancaster. Compared with the more direct route along Interstate 5 through the Grapevine, this would add 30 miles to the trip plus $1 billion in construction costs, and make it all but impossible for the train to meet its promised travel time of 2 hours and 40 minutes from L.A. to San Francisco. The legislative analyst calls for slashing the authority's proposed budget for next year by $185 million and eventually eliminating it, transferring the bullet train's oversight to another agency. We heartily agree.