Hailed as a high-speed road to the future, a jobs program and a symbol of America’s dedication to innovation, President Obama proposed Monday spending $8 billion on a bullet train — a down payment on a nationwide network that will cost $58 billion over the next six years.
But in the one state where the federal high-speed rail project is underway, critics say money is being misspent, ridership studies are inflated, the route is politically corrupted and the system will never be self supporting.
“They don’t know where they’re going to build it, they don’t have a mile of right of way under possession, it is not shovel ready, it is not even engineer ready,” said Richard Tolmach, with the California High-Speed Rail Authority. “It is still a work in progress where the line might go. Right now it is not somewhere the feds should be putting their money.”
But the feds are putting money into the project. Already California has received about $3.8 billion, mostly in stimulus money. But as the high-speed rail project that is furthest along, it stands to bring home the lion’s share of any additional federal money.
And that is where the controversy comes in. The first leg of the project is slated for the middle of Central Valley — not between major cities, or congested freeway corridors like San Francisco and San Jose or Orange County and Los Angeles. The Central Valley site is between Borden — a point on the map where no one lives — and Corcoran, a town where half the residents will never board a train because they’re in prison.
“We heard things like it’s the ‘train to nowhere’ and we tell people we’re not nowhere, we’re Mayberry,” Corcoran City manager Ron Hoggard said.
The train will never stop in Corcoran, but many locals want the jobs. However, city officials fear the noise, environmentalists fear for the wildlife, and farmers don’t want their land and irrigation lines bisected.
“So if it comes through town and it’s elevated, you know you have an elevated graffiti magnet at 85 decibels every six minutes. That’s probably not a good thing for this small town feel that we want to have,” Hoggard said.
But rail officials say they had no choice.
“We have to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes, that’s by state law. The only way to do that is through the Central Valley,” said Jeff Barker, with the California Rail Authority.
The state hopes to leverage the public money into billions in private investment. But so far the ridership numbers put out by the state don’t support profitability, thereby requiring a government guarantee. That is something supporters won’t admit, since it would likely sink the project.
Critics say the bullet train is a boondoggle and black hole of taxpayer dollars for decades to come. Advocates say it is a vital link in America’s transportation future, relieving congesting in the skies and on the freeways. They also say it will create thousands of jobs, helping justify the cost. But in California alone, with new estimates putting the cost at $65 billion, is it a luxury Congress feels America can afford.