California's Slow-Speed Train to Fiscal Oblivion

Late last week came news that even California progressives recognized as a sign of peak nonsense in the Golden State’s gold-plated misgovernment: San Francisco was beginning the planning process to build a single-toilet public restroom at a cost of... $1.7 million. Even Gov. Gavin Newsom, embarrassed by the publicity for this absurdity, has demanded the state funding be revoked. The toilet debacle is routine in today’s California, where in urban areas it now costs over $1 million to build an apartment unit, if you can get a building permit at all.

But all of these egregious examples of misgovernment pale before the greatest flushing of taxpayer cash of all time: California’s high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to the Bay Area. After years of cheerleading from former governor and perpetual public employee Jerry Brown among others, the proposal to link California’s two major metropolitan areas with high-speed rail was finally launched in 2008 with a ballot initiative providing an initial $9.9 billion in bonds for the project that ludicrously claimed would only cost around $33 billion to complete.

No one under the age of reason believed that cost estimate, for the simple reason that virtually every rail transit project in America over the last 50 years has typically cost at least twice initial estimates, with ridership levels often less than half of forecast while operating costs inevitably balloon. Yet somehow the rail-consultant-engineering complex proceeds from boondoggle to boondoggle without embarrassment or consequence.

By 2012 the estimated cost of the project had doubled, and suddenly the “bullet” train that initially promised to whisk people between L.A. and the Bay Area at 220 miles per hour would be slowed down to an average speed closer to 150 miles an hour, as the route would employ some conventional tracking to save costs. And because of local opposition especially in the Bay Area that produced the predictable environmental lawsuits, the route began construction of a tiny portion of the line in a sparsely settled portion of the central valley, with the final route through geologically and seismically challenging mountains at both ends to be determined later. Meanwhile, ticket prices initially promised at $50 would now be about $125.

Now flash forward another decade, and the cost has nearly doubled again, to $113 billion—if the project is ever completed at all, which is now unlikely. It has become such a conspicuous disaster that even the New York Times finally took notice, with a long feature article recently about how California’s high-speed but low-intelligence project “went off the rails” and became “a nightmare.” The most shocking part of the Times takedown was not its recounting of the soaring costs, the appalling bureaucracy, and the petty corruption—facts that have been well known and widely reported in California from the beginning—but the comments of experienced foreign high-speed rail operators from Japan and France, who pulled out of collaborating with California early when it became obvious that the project was going to be comically inept:

“There were so many things that went wrong,” Mr. [SNCF’s Dan] McNamara said. “SNCF was very angry. They told the state they were leaving for North Africa [in 2011], which was less politically dysfunctional. They went to Morocco and helped them build a rail system.” Morocco’s bullet train started service in 2018.

You know things have reached peak absurdity when North African countries are more functional than California. Even if the medium-speed rail line could be completed at a reasonable cost, it was never a sensible idea in the first place, at any price.

The left’s fixation with rail transit in general, and high-speed rail in particular, is puzzling. Why a creed that purports to be future-oriented and about “progress” embraces a 19th century technology for 21st century mobility needs—whether intra-urban or intercity—tells us a lot about how progressive ideology consistently trumps facts. Progressives who envy the high-speed rail projects in Japan and Europe ignore one crucial fact about those systems (beyond their heavy ongoing subsidies): they are geographically compact nations with much higher population densities, making rail travel more convenient and cost-effective than air travel in most cases.

All aboard le Train à Grande Vitesse

France is the same size as Texas, and most of its intercity high-speed rail lines are much shorter than the LA-SF trip would be. Japan as a long high-speed line that takes 13 hours from Tokyo to Fukuoka, but unlike California’s line stops along the way at several large population centers, with short-distance riders accounting for most of its passenger traffic.

Even if California’s rail line traveled at 220 miles per hour for its entire route, it would still be much quicker and cheaper to fly from the Southland to the Bay Area. Amtrak’s Acela corridor in the northeast is the only rail route in America than competes effectively with air travel, as the two-hour forty-five minute trip from downtown D.C. to midtown Manhattan or Wall Street is preferable to flying the airline shuttle.

But basic geography along with time-and-distance calculation are lost on dreamy Lotus Land progressives. Think only of the initial version of the “Green New Deal,” where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez envisioned nationwide high-speed rail replacing air travel, which is as impossible as repealing gravity. Very few people are going to take high-speed rail from New York to Chicago, not to mention Los Angeles.

The left’s quest for the holy rail is ultimately of a piece with their love affair with European social democracy, with its more regimented and conformist society. It also likely reflects their hatred of the automobile and the individual autonomy it has enabled in our vast country for a century. “Getting people out of their cars” has been a deranged obsession of the left for decades, made more urgent in recent years by the left’s desire to stop Americans from listening to conservative talk radio. Rail is yet another dead-end, but it will take more than flashing warning lights from the New York Times to get progressives to wake up.

Chasing the Future by Slow Train

San Francisco in recent years has become an advance warning for the collapse of city government, urban life, and even of civilization itself. Now it seems that “a survey of electric vehicle (E.V.) charging stations in the San Francisco area has discovered that about one in four don’t work.” It’s no surprise, of course, that some of the urban infrastructure of San Francisco might not be in the best of shape.

At the same time, California used to think of itself until very recently as the future of America and even of the world—the harbinger of innovative technologies that will transform our lives for the better. It’s also the state that has the deepest-greenest consciousness in the U.S. There’s a “tension” between these two self-perceptions, as we’ll see, but they combine easily enough to make Californians the Americans most likely to lead the switch from petrol-driven to electric vehicles.

And the latest statistics confirm that. With only 10 percent of the nation’s cars, California now accounts for over 40 percent of all zero-emission cars in the U.S. As sales of E.V.s rise, however, there needs to be a matching increase in the number of electric charging stations to give the new model vehicles the juice to keep them on the road.

Gov. Newsom's got things well in hand.

As Yahoo News discovered, when researchers drove their E.V.s to hundreds of public charging stations in nine Bay Area counties, they found that 27.5 percent were unusable for one reason or another. Given the newness of the technology, the list of failings had an oddly familiar, almost domestic ring to it. The most common fault, at 7.2 percent of stations, was a payment system failure. Second was a charge initiation failure, at 6.4 percent, where charging either didn’t start after paying or stopped within two minutes. Around the same number had a problem with the screen — either totally blank, non-responsive or displaying an error message. Almost 5 percent of chargers had cables too short to reach the car, and a few had broken connectors or other trouble connecting with the cars.

Because a full tank of electricity goes less far than one of petrol, E.V. drivers often have to calculate pretty accurately how long a journey they can afford to take in time rather than money. If a quarter of charging stations aren’t working, they can be stranded unexpectedly. Hilly San Francisco has its own kinds of hazards for stranded drivers—ditto California’s endless series of spaghetti junctions—but only very rarely will they include the weather (earthquakes, more so).

What, however, of the great plains? Even for everyday driving tasks, people there are accustomed to going long distances through places where you wouldn’t want to be stranded on a cold day anyway, but in particular if you were driving an E.V. since they don’t work so well on cold days.

Consumer Reports has recently examined the performance of E.V.s in this regard. The experts they asked pointed to two problems: first that an E.V.’s battery power and range declines as the temperature falls, especially when it falls below zero Fahrenheit—not uncommon in large parts of the U.S. during the winter, from the Upper Midwest across to New England; second, even at somewhat warmer temperatures, the car’s internal heating arrangements draw electricity from the battery and decrease its range.

Pro tip: dress warm in the Dakotas!

How severe are these problems? Consumer Reports put two E.V.s through the following test last January in Connecticut: three different journeys, amounting to 64 miles in all, with the E.V.s allowed to cool down after the first two journeys so that they would need to reheat each time. What CR found was as follows:

The Nissan Leaf (with its base 40 kWh battery; a longer range version is set to go on sale later this year, Nissan has said) has an Environmental Protection Agency-estimated 151-mile range. At the end of our 64-mile drive, the predicted range left was only 10 miles. Using the advertised range, the car should have traveled 141 miles before it was left with only 10. That’s more than double the anticipated loss in range.

The Tesla Model 3 has an EPA-estimated 310-mile range. At the end of that same 64 mile drive, it indicated there were 189 miles of predicted range. Put another way, the Model 3 used 121 miles worth of range in only 64 miles. That’s almost double the anticipated loss.

Now, these are early days in the development of E.V.s, and their development teams are very confident of finding ways to improve their performance on battery power and distance range as on much else. For the moment, however, EVs can’t travel very far in cold weather, and in wide open spaces they depend upon the availability of a large network charging stations (that actually work). That means the more thinly populated areas of the United States will need to expand their network of E.V. charging stations very considerably to make it worthwhile for local folks to buy E.V.s—which in turn means a vast program of electrification across the fruited plain.

To get some idea of what that means and will cost, let me quote a U.K. study by a distinguished British engineer, Mike Travers, who in The Hidden Costs of Net-Zero estimates that the cost of installing the E.V. charging points alone will be a considerable one—something on the order of £31 billion in the much smaller geographical area of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Travers goes on to estimate the impact not only of switching to electric cars but also of wider policies of decarbonizing, for instance, home heating, and concludes that the extra demand for electricity would overwhelm the existing system of electricity distribution and require massive infrastructure repair and development at a total bill of £410 billion. Adjusted for population and expressed in U.S. dollars, these figures become $201 billion, $2,665 billion, and just short of $20,000 per household. And for what?

These figures should be taken with a pinch of salt, but they give some idea of the magnitude of the costs of switching from petrol-driven cars to E.V.s in a few years—the Brits are being told to do so by 2035. And they don’t include all the government costs of subsidizing the switch over. In California they include grants to low-income families to purchase E.V.s from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Don't worry: the BAAQMD is here to help!

But what these government rules and subsidies are financing is not the switch from petrol to electricity itself—the evolution and spread of EVs is happening anyway—but its acceleration in response not to market forces but to the non-market instructions of the administrative state. Some of the early flaws and drawbacks of E.V.s would be solved and overcome anyway during the process of market expansion—in effect subsidized by the wealthy acting as pioneer consumers of new luxury products as they always have—while the price gradually comes down. Instead, governments are spending a great deal of money—and making us poorer in the process—in order to make something happen more quickly at the cost of making it happen inefficiently and less cheaply.

Do we really want our economic progress pioneered and charted by government which creates a Bay Area Air Quality Management District to finance the purchase of the latest luxury goods by the poor but can’t manage to maintain the charging stations that enable to all drivers to be sure of reaching their destinations?

Look who’s in the White House. Consider Gavin Newsom in the Golden State. Apparently we do.