House Appropriations Committee tries to stop funding wasteful California rail project costing $128 billion

House Appropriations Committee tries to stop funding wasteful California rail project costing $128 billion
San Jose rail train. Screen grab.

Last Monday, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation approved a Fiscal Year 2024 budget that prohibits spending additional federal funds on the so-called California High‐​Speed Rail project. The project has managed to consume over $3.6 billion in federal funds without laying a single mile of track in its 14 years of existence.  The marked‐​up budget bill is expected to pass the full House Appropriations Committee this week, and later be adopted by the full House of Representatives, which is controlled by Republicans. The California rail project is ultimately expected to cost at least $128 billion.

Four months ago, California’s High‐​Speed Rail Authority told California’s legislature that existing funding sources were inadequate to pay for the construction of even the initial 171‐​mile segment of the project linking Madera to Bakersfield. But it also said it could potentially make up for its constantly-rising cost overruns by obtaining an additional $8 billion in federal grants, which it hoped would be enough to close the funding gap.

The Democratic-controlled Senate, however, is not expected to include a similar restriction against funding California’s wasteful rail project. Even if it did, the restriction in the House bill would need to survive a conference committee negotiation with the Senate. Also, the restriction in the House bill only applies to the FY 2024 budget. To keep California from grabbing the money, the restriction would have to be renewed annually until California either abandons the high‐​speed rail project or finds an alternative source of funding.

Unless such a restriction in included, the California rail project will ultimately require tens of billions of federal funding. Moreover, the California project is seen by advocates as the first part of a nationwide high‐​speed rail network that would require hundreds of billions in federal funding. In 2021, Congressman Seth Moulton (D‑MA) introduced a bill that would have spent $205 billion of federal funds on a nationwide high‐​speed network. Had that legislation passed, the total cost would likely have multiplied into the trillions of dollars amid cost overruns and operating losses.

Federal grants for the California rail project had been canceled under the Trump administration, which pointed out that the project was a “disaster” due to delays and ever-rising costs. But the Biden administration revived federal support for the project.

President Biden likes wasteful rail projects, and does not seem to understand their practical limitations. In June, he said that “We have plans to build a railroad from the Pacific all the way across the Indian Ocean,” even though it is not feasible to build railways over oceans.

The Biden administration wants to spend $8.8 billion on a single rail station operating at less than half its capacity, that has seen declining traffic in recent years.

As the Las Vegas Review-Journal noted in 2021, the California rail project’s cost had already more than tripled to over $100 billion, and completion dates had been pushed back by more than a decade: “The state’s political class bamboozled voters into approving a high-speed rail project intended to ultimately connect Los Angeles with San Francisco. Construction was supposed to be completed early this decade, and residents were assured that the shiny new ‘clean energy’ train could be theirs for the low, low price of $30 billion,” the editorial board wrote. “Instead, the project is more than a decade behind schedule and is now projected to cost $100 billion…and counting. Officials now hope they can complete a 171-mile stretch between Bakersfield and Merced by the end of the decade.”

Almost no one wants to travel the obscure route that is likely to be completed — from Bakersfield to Merced — by rail.  The two cities are already connected by a speedy highway, California Route 99. It only takes a little over two hours to drive from one city to the other. Merced has only about 80,000 people, so it is not an important destination. It’s a city with an extremely high poverty rate, and few attractions for either tourists or business travelers.

This rail project is so expensive that it will cost more to travel by train than by airplane, even though traveling by train is slower. As the Review-Journal notes, there’s no evidence that “high-speed” rail can “compete with air travel in terms of time or price.” Reason Magazine says that few people will ever ride California’s “high-speed” rail system, because it “will have ticket prices higher than airfares and will take nearly twice as long as flying.”

The rail project will also harm the environment. The Review Journal calls it an “environmental nightmare.” As the Daily Wire notes, “During the project’s more than 10-year life so far, it has been sued multiple times by environmentalists for harming wildlife along the proposed route.”

Cars and buses consume less energy per passenger-mile than the little-used trains will, and simply building the rail line results in greenhouse gas emissions. Operating high-speed rail will “take massive amounts of electricity,” “raising questions about the power grid’s ability to meet the demand,” says the Fresno Bee. “High-speed trains require huge amounts of infrastructure” compared to a “four-lane freeway,” says a transportation expert.

Bullet trains are usually white elephants. South Korea abolished its celebrated high-speed rail line because it couldn’t cover even the operating costs of keeping the trains running (much less its fixed costs). Despite Japan’s much-vaunted bullet trains, most Japanese don’t take the bullet train either; they take buses because the bullet train is too expensive. Bullet trains do interfere with freight lines, so Japanese freight lines carry much less cargo than in the United States, where railroads—rather than trucks—carry most freight, thereby reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

If California uses existing rail lines for high-speed rail, that will harm the environment, by crowding out more environmentally-friendly freight trains. As businessman Warren Meyer notes at Coyote Blog:

The U.S. rail system is optimized for freight, vs. European and Japanese systems that are optimized for passengers (it is hard to do both well with the same network). The U.S. situation is actually better, much better, for energy conservation.  I wrote in detail about this before:

First, consider the last time you were on a passenger train. Add up the weight of all the folks in your car. Do you think they weighed more or less than the car itself? Unless you were packed into a subway train with Japanese sumo wrestlers, the answer is that the weight of the car dwarfs that of the passengers it is carrying. The average Amtrak passenger car apparently weighs about 65 tons (a high speed rail car weighs more). The capacity of a coach is 70-80 passengers, which at an average adult weight of 140 pounds yields a maximum passenger weight per car of 5.6 tons. This means that just 8% of the fuel in a passenger train is being used to move people — the rest goes into moving the train itself.

Now consider a freight train. The typical car weighs 25-30 tons empty and can carry between 70 and 120 tons of cargo. This means that 70-80% of the fuel in a freight train is being used to move the cargo.

Trains are just not convenient for most riders. Mass transit carries fewer than 3 percent of all commuters to work, even in the nation’s 50 largest urban areas, a percentage that continues to fall despite rising spending on mass transit.

Trains are convenient for shipping heavy goods long-distance. But freight trains rely heavily on private infrastructure, rather than publicly-funded infrastructure. Most of America’s freight railroads build and maintain their infrastructure with little or no government assistance.

LU Staff

LU Staff

Promoting and defending liberty, as defined by the nation’s founders, requires both facts and philosophical thought, transcending all elements of our culture, from partisan politics to social issues, the workings of government, and entertainment and off-duty interests. Liberty Unyielding is committed to bringing together voices that will fuel the flame of liberty, with a dialogue that is lively and informative.


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