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.