Commentary: Quentin Kopp

High-Speed Train Project Off the Rails

In a Dec. 6, 1962, speech in New York City, then-assistant secretary of defense stated: “I think the inherent right of the government to lie to save itself when faced with nuclear disaster is basic.” The California High Speed Rail Authority’s Northern California Regional Director Boris Lipkin in the San Mateo Daily Journal’s Nov. 17, 2022, edition applied such falsity doctrine to that failed project. (I have publicly pleaded guilty of creating such state body with 1996 legislation as a then-state senator.)

Critics have charged that California’s once highly publicized electrified high-speed rail project is now a chimera or, worse, a tax-eating boondoggle. A Nov. 17, 2022, letter to the editor from the California High Speed Rail Authority’s Northern California Regional Director in The Daily Journal denying such failure reminded of a wry witticism: “Exaggeration is a blood relative to falsehood and almost as bad.”

This high-speed flack, paid with taxpayer dollars, accused me (whose legislative authorship created the Authority and enabled his subsequent flackery appointment) of “factually inaccurate statement.” Instead, he declared that 119 miles of high-speed track are honestly “already under construction.” Yet after I requested, pursuant to the California Public Records Act:, “all current contracts now in effect for construction of track from Merced to Bakersfield and Coachella and Wasco” the Authority’s public records administrator informed me last January that “… the Authority … has no records responsive to this request.” That means no construction contract has been let!

The Authority hasn’t even acquired by eminent domain or owner agreement all land parcels needed for project construction. At the end of January, the Authority’s honest public records administrator stated that total parcels delivered were 2,167 “compared to an estimated 2,305 parcels needed.” Environmental clearance for the promised San Francisco to San Jose, San Jose to Merced, Merced to Fresno, Fresno to Bakersfield, Bakersfield to Palmdale, and Palmdale to Los Angeles segments have been obtained, but there’s no funding to build. (Did I hear “idle gesture”?)

Of total authorized Authority positions (429), 328 are filled. The remainder are vacant. The legislature last year finally allowed sale of the remaining $4.2 billion general obligation bonds authorized by taxpaying voters in the Nov. 2008 election, but the public records administrator advises that no records of private investment in the project from 2009 until 2022 exist. The Authority admits the project will cost $77 billion to $113 billion. Where’s the money for even a diesel system duplicating Amtrak service in the Central Valley, much less true high-speed electrified trains? That’s right: the 119 miles from Merced to Bakersfield will accommodate only diesel trains, not electrified.

The project cost for the non-high speed rail portion in the Central Valley increased last month to $35.3 billion from $25.2 billion. It obtains money from a cap-and-trade program which adds 23 cents to every gasoline gallon besides the state’s 53.9 cents tax per gallon. Moreover, President Biden’s Department of Transportation denied last month a $1.3 billion requested grant for the project, deeming it not “cost effective.” (The only construction to date consists of bridges and viaducts in the Central Valley which, State Senator Brian Jones of San Diego asserts, should be demolished if they can’t be “repurposed.”)

The remaining project mavens seem to have a reverence for the truth. They always keep a respectable distance from it!

Finally, the Authority claims “… the project will not run diesel trains …” and is “already electrifying the Caltrain corridor ….” The 2008 $9.95 billion state bond issue included $950 million to connect regional train systems like Capitol Corridor, Caltrain and Metrolink (in the L.A. Basin) to high-speed rail. The Authority instead is spending $775 million in bond proceeds to electrify Caltrain.

Caltrain constitutes regional rail service of about 45 miles limited to one set of tracks, not the needed two if true high-speed trains ever operate on the Peninsula and doesn’t under state law need to pay all operating expenses from farebox revenue; High-speed rail does, per the voter-approved 2008 bond issue. It’s impossible for it to do so in the Central Valley competing against Amtrak in small cities. It’s not building tracks from San Francisco to Los Angeles as it promised voters in 2008. It’s building a diesel train system (actually only from Coachella to Wasco in Kern County). As the Authority claims, “electrified rail” is in California statutes, but neither Caltrain nor Metrolink is required by state law to be electrified. High-speed electrified rail’s California future doesn’t now exist; the 2008 ballot vision stained by subsequent misleading of California voters under post-2008 leadership, which manifestly can’t contradict facts. Close the project and convey remaining bond proceeds equally to Caltrain and Metrolink with statewide voter approval.

Quentin Kopp is a former San Francisco supervisor, state senator, member of the SF Ethics Commission and retired judge.

1 reply »

  1. Mr. Kopp’s analysis of the bullet train boondoggle applies to many projects in SF. Citizens are sold a vision of a better future such as the Central Subway, the Van Ness Corridor, the “Vision Zero” plan to eliminate pedestrian fatalities, the Slow Streets, or the ever-increasing budget for homeless services. But we quickly learn that the results are not what was promised and the cost is almost always triple the original estimate. Once these projects get started, they seem to take on a life of their own. It’s very difficult to abandon them, despite the acknowledgement of failed promises, collateral damage, and additional costs. The politicians and workers associated with these projects aggressively lobby for more money to complete the projects, or keep them running. While they are not necessarily corrupt, they struggle to evaluate the merits of the boondoggle project that benefits them. As Mr. Kopp suggests, the citizens have to demand accountability because it is will not come from the people who are benefiting from the boondoggles.


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