California’s high-speed choo-choo train drifted further into bizarro world Tuesday when the project’s lead government body announced a $2.8 billion jump in costs for the first 119-mile section of the planned 800-mile route.
At the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s monthly board meeting, Roy Hill, who heads the project’s main consulting firm, said the project has reached a “worst-case scenario” of increases unanticipated by the rail authority, but widely predicted outside the halls of state government, even in a confidential analysis by the Federal Railroad Administration.
Hill said delays in purchasing the land, the need to buy more parcels than projected, and the increase in land prices account for about $725 million of the cost increase; construction delays, $325 million; intrusion barriers to separate bullet-train tracks from adjacent railroad lines, $450 million; increased costs with outside agencies, $600 million; and contingencies set aside for future increases, $600 million.
Tuesday’s setback is just the most recent in a decade-long boondoggle of mismanagement, obfuscation, and wildly optimistic projections.
Voters approved the high-speed rail project in a 2008 ballot proposition. But at the time the rail authority projected a $40 billion price tag, a 2028 completion date, and a $55 one-way Los Angeles to San Francisco fare.
One year later, the rail authority said the project would actually cost $98.5 billion, the completion date would be 2033, and an L.A. to S.F. ticket would cost $95.
In 2012, the projected cost went back down to just double the original estimate — $68 billion.
The authority’s latest official estimate, in 2016, pegged costs at $64 billion, almost certainly a gross underestimate if the board’s past projections are any indication.
Just two years ago, the authority projected that the 119-mile section in California’s Central Valley would cost $7.8 billion, itself a jump from the initial $6 billion projection. The new $10.6 billion estimate means that each mile of track in that one section will cost over $89 million, a 77% increase from the projection that voters approved 10 years ago.
If costs for the entire high-speed rail increase at the same rate, it would cost $113 billion.
But more likely is that this first section of the rail will be the easiest to build, and that costs will increase at an even steeper rate as construction progresses. Future sections include lines beneath the Tehachapi and San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California, and the dense, urban route into the San Francisco Bay Area and Greater Los Angeles Area.
The rail authority’s chairman, Dan Richard, said going forward new construction won’t begin on future segments until all the land is in hand, which, as the Los Angeles Times pointed out, is “a practice that outside experts have long said is prudent project management.”
Those are three words — prudent project management — that state authorities would do well to practice should they intend for their fantastical choo-choo train to even have a completion date at all.