Train to nowhere - On Cortes

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Sources forward to me the following article which Dan Walters writes in the Sacramento Bee

California may build train to nowhere : ""

A few days before this month's election, the federal government announced that California would receive an additional $715 million for its high-speed rail project, contingent on the money being spent quickly on a segment in the San Joaquin Valley.

Why? You'd have to be terminally naive not to believe that the splashy announcement, made personally by an Obama administration official in Fresno, was to help an embattled local congressman, Democrat Jim Costa, stave off a very stiff Republican challenge.

Costa, a longtime bullet train advocate, did, in fact, eke out a narrow re-election win. And last week, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) announced plans to spend that money and some other federal and state funds, $4.3 billion in all, to build a 54-mile segment from Madera to Corcoran. It was instructive on two fronts. It illustrated the pork barrel aspects of the scheme, with financing, routes and station sites dependent more on political pull than objective criteria. It also underscored the eagerness of bullet train boosters to turn dirt, thereby creating a moral commitment to complete the project despite its deficiencies.


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This is an interesting act of Hubris on the part of the CAHSRA. If the entire line were to be funded with 100% certainty in short order, it would not matter which segment were built first, as they would all ultimately get built.

But 100% certainty is certainly lacking in this case, the funding stars are hardly aligned (much less the right-of-way acquired or the lawsuits settled). The risk is that this line will indeed be a line to approximately nowhere from nowhere. It will be great for the Fresno exurbanites living in Corcoran, Hanford, or Selma, or perhaps the dozens of tourists seeking to go to the Italian Swiss Colony outside of Madera.

Like Cortés who scuttled his ships to eliminate any idea of retreat, the authority is burning the public's money on a useless segment. (Unfortunately for the Aztecs, Cortés succeeded, others who unsuccessfully applied the same strategy are generally unmentioned in the history books). Presumably this is to help ensure further lines are built. (You have to build the rest to get anything useful). In contrast, a more rational strategy (one hesitates to use an unqualified "rational") would be to build the lines out of Los Angeles or San Francisco, which would have fallback use as commuter rail lines. No one (who earned their own money from anything more complicated than a lottery ticket or rewriting a dying relative's will and who retains their faculties) spending their own money would do something so arrogant or risky. Historically, privately built railroads always built the best segments first (those leading into or out of major cities or connecting mines with ports, or other sources of supply and demand), and then extended their systems treelike to connect more and more markets, eventually interconnecting. This is the natural order of emergent infrastructure systems, and ensures viability at the first and all subsequent stages. By forgoing the mostly rational strategy, the CHSRA, playing with OPM (Other People's Money) seeks to leverage future money from politicians who don't want an albatross-like white elephant around their necks. If all infrastructure that were begun were ultimately finished, this would be fine, but history is rife with half-finished and abandoned projects, begun with fanfare, sealed with ignominy. A few are below.

6 Comments

At least one of the projects above (the Second Avenue Subway) is now being revived. Which I guess goes to show you that building a tunnel to nowhere might eventually pay off as a political strategy.

@Chris Lawrence

Let's see if the Second Avenue Subway is ever actually finished.

I recently drove across country and in some of the smallest towns, there were huge infrastructure projects underway. I doubt that a town with 5,000 inhabitants needed a new overpass. I sense that the government is spending money just to spend it and hope that things work out. I don't think this is a good way to go about getting us on the road to recovery.

Dan Walters is deliberately misrepresenting the project as proposed. If the full funding for the entire line between San Francisco and Los Angeles doesn't materialize in a timely fashion, there are plans to run Amtrak service in the interim at speeds of up to 150mph on the new stretch of track. These Amtrak trains would also provide through-service to Sacramento and Bakersfield. You need to be careful to take the word journalists, many of who thrive on creating controversy, even if it means misrepresenting and issue.

Sorry about typos. I wish there were editing of comments. I meant: You need to be careful to take the word of journalists, many of who thrive on creating controversy, even if it means misrepresenting an issue.

@Daniel Krause

Even is a journalist is not representing things 100% correctly, if the rest of the line is not built it will remain functionally approximately useless. Amtrak at 150MPH for a short segment in the Central Valley is a far cry from a real transportation service. It will be like I-170 (now US 40) in Baltimore, which was meant to be part of I-70 and connect to I-83, but was abandoned after the freeway revolt and became a much reviled trench in the heart of the city that could save through travelers a few minutes of surface street travel. Amtrak service now is not particular good, even improving this segment won't make it better without the critical pieces.

David Levinson

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This page contains a single entry by David Levinson published on November 30, 2010 8:18 AM.

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