This Train Won’t Leave the Station
Governor Gavin Newsom has canceled the bulk of the state’s long-proposed high-speed line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, leaving only a tail of the once-grand project — a connection between the Central Valley’s Merced and Bakersfield, not exactly major metropolitan areas. “Let’s be real,” Newsom said in his first State of the State address. “The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.” The project’s cost, originally pegged at $33 billion, ballooned over the last decade to an estimated $77 billion (or maybe as high as $98 billion), with little reason to assume that the cost inflation would end there.
This effectively puts an end to former governor Jerry Brown’s “legacy” project, the lone tangible accomplishment for a second gubernatorial stint that had been far better at raising taxes and imposing draconian legislation than building things. Brown wanted to build his beloved train in a state with some of the nation’s worst roads (despite its second-highest gas taxes), a deteriorating water-delivery system, and massive pension debt. With Brown finally in retirement, Newsom took the opportunity to free up billions of dollars that his Democratic allies would like to spend in other ways.
Perhaps the most critical national casualty may be the Green New Deal proposed by New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Much of her platform for a ten-year transformation of the American economy centers on transportation. In her bid to kill the internal-combustion engine, Ocasio-Cortez apparently seeks to eliminate both cars and planes. Her favored solution for cross-continental travel: a massive network of high-speed trains.
Some of this must seem fanciful even to the democratic-socialist heartthrob from the Bronx. In contrast with Western Europe, where several high-speed rail lines operate, the United States has huge distances between cities; its average population density is generally lower than that of the European continent. Even on the California coast, a 450-mile high-speed rail trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco would have taken nearly four hours, compared with a one-hour plane ride. Imagine taking high-speed rail from Los Angeles to Chicago: a three-hour trip by plane becomes a 15-hour or longer trek across vast, empty spaces. During that time, the traveler would cover more high-speed rail mileage than the current length of the entire French system.
Even fervent supporters of the Green New Deal must recognize what California’s cancellation means: if high-speed rail is not feasible in the state with the three densest major metro areas in the nation, and the highest overall urban density, it is not feasible anywhere else in the United States. (And not just here: Britain’s proposed high-speed rail megaproject, HS2, also appears on the verge of cancellation. Sounding like Governor Newsom, a senior government official told Channel 4’s Dispatches public affairs program: “The costs are spiraling so much we’ve been actively considering other scenarios, including scrapping the entire project.”) It also suggests that the costs for a national network would be formidable and would require the printing presses at the Treasury to work overtime. Of the many high-speed rail lines built in the developed world, only two (Tokyo-Osaka and Paris-Lyon) have ever been profitable, and in each case highway tolls for the same routes exceed $80 one-way, making high-speed rail in those cases an economical consumer choice. California, the green heart of the resistance, has met fiscal reality; reality won.
Some greens and train enthusiasts, such as the deep-blue Los Angeles Timeseditorial board, have criticized Newsom’s move, and others remain adamant in their support of the plane-to-train trope. But California, which has embarked on its own Green New Deal of sorts, has seen these results: high energy and housing costs, and the nation’s highest cost-adjusted poverty rate, and a society that increasingly resembles a feudal social order. Attempts to refashion global climate in one state reflects either a peculiarly Californian hubris or a surfeit of revolutionary zeal.
Of course, Newsom and the bullet train’s supporters justify spending billions more on the Central Valley line as a way of reviving the terribly challenged, impoverished economy of that region. Yet greens and their allies have already shown what comes of putting their ideas into practice—cutting water supplies to farmers, blocking new energy production, and leaving Route 99, the Valley’s main thoroughfare, in such awful shape that it has been named the country’s most dangerous highway. The Valley does not need a bullet train to nowhere. It needs, rather, policies that allow for its basic industries, such as agriculture, manufacturing, and energy, to expand and provide desperately needed jobs. Oil-rich California has been replacing in-state production for imported petroleum, to the enrichment of Saudi Arabia but to the detriment of California workers.
Newsom’s pullback from Brown’s Olympian high-speed rail vision may reflect growing concerns about the state’s economy. After several years of fairly robust growth, California’s job machine is now producing employment at mediocre rates, and worse than that in its biggest urban area, Los Angeles. The real-estate market, which was driving some of the revenue gains, appears stuck, with sales down and prices headed in that direction, though the regulatory environment is skewed to facilitate price escalation. If stock performance is weak, California could see its greatest source of revenue—capital gains from Silicon Valley—reduced. The last quarter saw falling tax collections, and any hiccup in the tech money machine, or even a mild recession, could prove devastating, as Brown himself warned before leaving office.
In Washington, Ocasio-Cortez and others will continue to push their fantastical Green New Deal, at least until the Senate votes on it. With the utterly predictable demise of California’s high-speed rail project, however, the Golden State may prove the unlikely place where would-be planetary redeemers were brought back to earth.
Joel Kotkin is the presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His latest book is The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us. Wendell Cox is the principal of Demographia, a public-policy consultancy, and a senior fellow at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism.
This article was originally published by City Journal Online