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EDITORIAL: California’s high-speed boondoggle

Webster’s Dictionary might as well change the spelling of boondoggle to h-i-g-h s-p-e-e-d r-a-i-l.

Earlier this month, the California High Speed Rail Authority released its 2022 business plan. It’s more than 100 pages long, but it can be summed up in three words: keep wasting money.

The potential cost of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles project now tops $105 billion. That’s up more than $5 billion from a similar report the authority released last year. That’s the high-end estimate. The base estimate went from around $83 billion to $87 billion. The low-end estimate went from roughly $69 billion to $72 billion.

This is one price hike you can’t blame solely on President Joe Biden’s inflation-producing policies. Costs have been soaring for years. In 2008, $10 billion in bond funding for high-speed rail went before California voters. At the time, they were told that the total cost of the project would be around $40 billion. That was a crock.

That’s not the only thing backers of the train got wrong. It was supposed to start operating in 2020. It’s 2022, but no track has been laid.

As it stands, the first portion of the track will be a 119-mile line that runs through the Central Valley. Eventually that’s supposed to turn into a 175-mile stretch from Merced to Bakersfield. Fine cities, but hardly the thriving metropolises this project once promised to connect.

Getting service to San Francisco and L.A. will require a lot more money than is currently available. The project did receive $3.5 billion during the Obama administration. The authority wants more. It hopes to cash in on the infrastructure bill. It wants a federal-state funding program that will allow it to expand service beyond the Central Valley. The federal government and California are both experts in wasting money, but even this project should raise eyebrows.

Perhaps the most amusing section of the authority’s business plan is its break-even analysis. That’s a measure of the likelihood that yearly operating revenues from fares exceeds operations and maintenance expenses. By 2040, it projected a “99.4 percent chance of profitability” if the system runs from San Francisco to Anaheim.

Given how proponents of mass transit consistently exaggerate ridership projections in order to drum up public support and finagle more tax money, who could take such a number seriously? It’s more likely that the chances of losing money are 99.4 percent, assuming it even gets built.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for major mass transit projects, including high-speed rail. If private investors won’t put up their own money, taxpayers shouldn’t either.

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