Why Aren't Unions Fighting California's Bullet Train Boondoggle?

Back in 2008, voters in California approved Prop. 1, a statewide initiative to spend, “$9 billion for building a new high-speed railroad between San Francisco and Los Angeles.”

Total cost, $9.5 billion. Remember that?

Quoting further from the original initiative’s ballot language:

“Bond Costs. The costs of these bonds would depend on interest rates in effect at the time they are sold and the time period over which they are repaid. The state would make principal and interest payments from the state’s General Fund over a period of about 30 years. If the bonds are sold at an average interest rate of 5 percent, the cost would be about $19.4 billion to pay off both principal ($9.95 billion) and interest ($9.5 billion). The average repayment for principal and interest would be about $647 million per year. Operating Costs. When constructed, the high-speed rail system will incur unknown ongoing maintenance and operation costs, probably in excess of $1 billion a year. Depending on the level of ridership, these costs would be at least partially offset by revenue from fares paid by passengers.” (ref. UC Hastings Scholarship Repository, Propositions, California Ballot Propositions and Ballot Initiatives)

Over time, fantasy always yields to reality.

The most recent reputable estimate of High Speed Rail costs come from an in-depth special report published last month by the Los Angeles Times, entitled “$68-billion California bullet train project likely to overshoot budget and deadline targets.”

The title of that special report says it all. California’s High Speed Rail was sold to voters for an amount that is at least seven times less than our most recent estimate of costs, and if the author of the LA Times special report is to be believed, it is very unlikely this project will come in for a total cost under $100 billion.

High speed rail was sold to voters back in 2008 in roughly the same way pension benefit enhancements were sold to naive politicians back around 1999. In both cases, the decision makers were told it would cost next to nothing. Isn’t this called fraud? To sell a good or service to a consumer at a given price, then come back and demand ten times as much money?

Payments on these construction costs will be paid from the California state general fund, and based on a $100 billion total cost and a 5.0% interest rate, that comes out to $166 per year per California resident. Not that much? Unimpressed? Put another way, based on roughly six million taxpaying households in California (about half of California’s 12 million households pay no taxes; their sales tax burden is largely offset by the earned income tax credit), construction of this train will cost $1,084 per taxpaying household per year.

Do you want to pay $1,000 per year for a project that will not alleviate California’s transportation challenges one bit? A project that will lose money forever? A project that will use up massive amounts of capital that could be deployed to achieve literally dozens of other huge and vitally needed infrastructure objectives?

This is where California’s labor leadership, by continuing to support high speed rail as a centerpiece project, are showing how out of touch they truly are with the average working family. Because they are unwilling to fight for major infrastructure investments that would improve the quality of life and lower the cost of living for all Californians; improvements to existing rail, upgraded roads, state-of-the art natural gas and 5th generation nuclear power stations, reservoirs and aquifer storage projects, upgraded sewage treatment plants to produce potable water, and much, much more. If California’s labor leaders care about all workers, they will find the vision and courage to fight for these useful amenities, instead of promoting high speed rail.

20151123-UW-HSR
High Speed Rail CEO Jeff Morales made $477,760 in 2014

A legitimate role for government spending is to make strategic investments that reduce costs for basic necessities. That is what makes a nation prosperous. That is a proper use of public funds. Artificially inflating the costs for energy, water and transportation – which is the current policy of California’s government, abetted by big labor in this state – is a crime against the people of California.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

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