Fantasy-land Never Sleeps.

Determining Where to Spend California’s Last Fantasy Money

The new Bay Span section of the San Francisco Bay Bridge opened in the fall of 2013, 25 years after it was approved in 1998. The State director of Transportation doesn’t like to talk about the cost, but since you and I pay for these public works, it should be part of the conversation.

The original estimate in 1998 was $1.3 billion. Certainly a hefty figure for a bridge of less than two miles in length. The final cost is believed to be $6.4 billion. But this is still an estimate. We know that the final bill will even exceed this fantastic price because there are still weld problems affecting safety that will need to be remedied during its lifetime. Is there anyone reading this that would not have fired their building contractor if the cost to build a garage doubled over what was bid? Well, maybe there are a few of you out there; let’s say the cost tripled, would we pull the trigger then? Five times?

As I said, the Director would rather not talk about it. Why even go to the trouble of estimating a project, when the final cost can be 500% more than first estimated?  If the real numbers were known at the beginning, would the public have protested the expense? I would certainly hope so, but this is the left coast. It seems that much in California these days is fantasy-based. Sacramento’s efforts are largely based on the fantasy of doing everything for everyone.

Now that the Bay Bridge is completed, but not paid for, we can plan the next public-financed transportation fantasy—high-speed rail. Notice how we call it rail and not a high-speed train. Rail sounds more Schwarzenegger-like and train might remind us of those slower, noisy, sweaty, uncomfortable things that stop at each station—and are late. The rail was originally estimated to cost 63 billion Hollywood dollars, but its cost has slowly expanded. Presently, the “real cost” is estimated to be almost 100 billion. But in the land of fantasy, where a short bridge span can cost 500% more than originally estimated—can we expect a 400-mile high-speed rail system that must dodge existing highways, homes, cities, farms and mountains, not to mention political jurisdictions, to bear a final price tag of any less than $500 billion when it is done?

After it is built, which will certainly take decades (the bridge took 25 years), will anyone seriously use this boondoggle more than once, aside from the Governor and state dignitaries? The technology is more than 100 years old. At least we should explore using new technology. 

Travelers will still need ground transportation once they get off the “high-speed” train. San Francisco has a decent public transit system, but in LA you drive, if you plan to travel, and it can be at feet per hour rather than mph. You have heard jokes about people in LA living on the freeway? They’re not jokes.

Also, let’s not forget that people from each county through which this make-believe system travels will want access to it. If you give up good farmland, re-route good country roads to enable the project, you surely expect to have access to the damn thing when it’s done. This means trains will have to stop, Governor Brown. So, it will run sort-of-high speed between towns mainly at night, and not around curves. There will be mishaps and accidents, which will cause the managers to slow the thing down as operators of every other high-speed train system have done, reluctantly.  I expect that it will average not much more than 70 or 80 miles per hour over the 400 mile length. This is a 5 hour trip from SF to LA at best.

At the right time of day, the trip from San Francisco to LA takes about 6 hours by car on our present Federal Highways, and you only have to pay for your gas.  There are reasonably priced plane flights that will get businesswomen and men there in much less than 5 hours, including airport time at either end. Don’t forget that LA is a hundred miles wide. The chance that anyone will want to travel only to where the sort-of-fast train stops, are slim.

Unfortunately, there will likely be other serious problems with this nightmare. Those who see mass transportation as their play-land for violence will surely take note of the new mode of travel. Safety concerns in the air travel industry have created unavoidable airport delays and greatly expanded pre-travel time for modern-day travelers. Imagine the headache the TSA or some new state body, (the cost of which has not even been estimated yet), will have trying to protect passengers on a rail system that cannot escape 30,000 feet above the planet during the flight. Can you visualize the delays at each stop? Or at unscheduled stops? It is staggering to contemplate.

How likely will you and your family want to travel on an indefensible moving target? But since we are in the land of make believe, why add reality to this SF-LA story. If we really examine the idea thoroughly, it might not sell well. Is that not so Governor?  At least air travelers are somewhat protected by the 30,000 feet. Are we all getting the true picture yet? This will be low-speed rail capable of higher speeds only at lower personal safety.  We already have dependable transportation systems that can take us to LA. Lets make them the best.

Another serious problem is the financing itself. The ability for California to pay for obligations it has saddled the public with is already a national joke.  So where will California find the additional $500 billion?  Bond financing, of course. But how can the Governor and State Legislators pretend that California will be able to pay this bill in the future when it doesn’t have the money to pay the obligations it already has?  Even a fifth grader has the math to pass this test.

In the movie-theater of Sacramento government, it may be difficult to separate the two concepts: fantasy and reality. Hopefully, the public which will have to pay for this – forever – will catch on and do so before we start building. Think how we could improve California’s schools, its public universities, its health programs, or our present roads—yes, even to LA with this fantasy money that becomes very real once we reach into our own pockets.  If we don’t get it, then just enjoy the movie before it ends. We are just the kind of public that Sacramento counts on in order to sell this fiction and finance it with pretend money from somebody’s future. Pass the popcorn.

Geoff Wood 4/29/14

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