California High-Speed Rail Celebrates Completing Bridge to Nowhere

If critics wanted proof California’s bullet train is a zombie project, they got it straight from California’s High-Speed Rail’s publicity department last week.

A zombie project occurs when government officials refuse to acknowledge that their ambitions have failed. Instead of killing the project because it has become a monstrous waste, they pump more and more money into it. They do that even though they know that throwing good money after bad is a sure recipe for fiscal disaster. They do it because they aren’t willing to admit their failures and because they personally benefit from the wasteful spending.

In the case of California’s zombie bullet train project, the state government’s central planners have been fighting reality itself. That makes California High-Speed Rail’s latest publicity effort to celebrate their “success” stand out. Here’s what they tweeted on X on May 1, 2024:

The pictured Fresno River Viaduct is an impressive concrete structure. It is indeed one of the zombie bullet train project’s first completed high-speed rail structures. A structure featured on Wikipedia, complete with photos of it “nearing completion” in 2017. California High-Speed Rail’s tweet is celebrating an over six-year old achievement.

Does that sound like a healthy construction project making lots of visible progress? Or does that sound like California High-Speed Rail is digging up old stories to make it seem like they are?

If you look closely at the photos, you’ll see some other tip-offs that things are going as well for it as they want it to appear. The viaduct doesn’t connect to anything on either of its ends, making it not a bridge to the future, but a bridge to nowhere. Nor is there any evidence of any current construction to connect it to anywhere in the photos.

Running Out of Taxpayer Money

It also doesn’t help that the project, already billions over budget and years behind schedule, is running out of taxpayer money—again.

California’s high speed rail authority’s business plans include requesting the state deploy its rainy day funds to plug an $8 to $10 billion funding gap. Due to population decline, ridership estimates declined over the past year for the main Los Angeles to San Francisco segment from 31.3 million per year to 28.4 million per year.

The San Francisco to Anaheim high speed rail plan, approved by voters in 2008 with a $9.95 billion bond, is expected to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes via high speed rail. The California High Speed Rail Authority estimates this project will cost between $89 and $128 billion and may be complete by 2040.

The initial Merced to Bakersfield 171 mile segment is estimated to cost between $30 and $33 billion and be completed between 2030 and 2033. $18 billion has already been spent on the total HSR project, including securing land and environmental approvals for the project—422 of 463 miles of the train between downtown San Francisco and downtown Los Angeles have already been cleared….

However, with a major funding gap, and a sunset of California’s cap-and-trade program in 2030—“the only means of ongoing state funding” for the project, the financial future of even the first operating segment is in jeopardy.

Does that sound like a well-managed state government project? Or does it sound more like the plot for a really bad movie featuring slow-moving zombies that won’t die?

Craig Eyermann is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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