Just Fooling, We Had No Idea What We Were Doing

California voters -- unskeptical, unrealistic, and gullible -- nevertheless trusted their elected and unelected technocrats in Sacramento to be telling them the truth when they agreed to a $9.95 billion bond issue for high speed rail.  It turns out, even according the HSR's most fervent supporters, that the numbers that were used to sell the bond issue were total crap, and they knew it at the time

In September, I was one of several journalists who interviewed top officials with the California High Speed Rail Authority. Here is board member Lynn Schenk’s response to my question about accountability:

Q: In 2008, this project was sold to voters with the claim that when it was done there would be 117 million annual riders, which is more than four times what Amtrak now has, and it operates in 46 states. It was sold with claims of a $100 round-trip ticket and many other claims that no one believes anymore. If we had known then what we know now, it might not have passed. So when do we get accountability?

SCHENK: This deserves as much of a direct answer as I can maybe possibly give. And that is about the first business plan and those early studies. These gentlemen were not there at the time. I was there. We had one professional and two half-professionals, who were constantly being furloughed because of the state budget issue. That first plan, much to the regret of many of us, was pulled together with Scotch tape and hairpins because we had to get something to the Legislature, but we didn’t have the money, the resources, the people to pull together, so there were a lot of errors. You’re right. But there were also things in there that still stand true today. And we have new studies, a new business plan coming out. The ridership study that we had it is not as bad as the opponents would say. But there are tweaks. And there are things that need to be adjusted and we are looking to do that.

Because the last thing a bureaucratic is ever going to say is "we don't know."   So they told they public the rail line would have 117 million annual riders, when even an estimate of 5 million is probably high.  Jeff Skilling is in jail for a far less substantial exaggeration of his business prospects.

Of course voters were idiots to accept these numbers, when 5 minutes of research would have shown them absurd (the media did nothing to help, of course).  One relevent factoid:

The current air passenger traffic between LAX and SFO is 2.7 million a year

But we are going to have tens of millions of rail customers.  Right.


  1. TJIC:

    > But there are tweaks.

    I recently caught hell from some of my HeavyInk.com customers for calling a hike in shipping fees that could be as high as $4 for some folks "tweaks".

    I can't even imagine calling a few billion dollars or a few million riders "tweaks".

  2. Mark:

    All the intercity traffic on I-5 comes to about 31 million people per year - then you add all the airport traffic from SoCal (not just from LAX) to NorCal and you get another five million. So we are up to 36 million. 101, and 99 also contribute to north South traffic, but are usually not used for the same route proposed by the train and usually for shorter hops since they take much longer to drive - but I suppose adding some of that traffic would get us to about the current 41 million mark and this is all travel from SoCal to NorCal.

    So this train is currently going to double all traffic from SoCal to Norcal, and was originally proposed to triple it!

  3. Mark:

    Something else to consider, with 1123228 people taking the train every day and a train typically holding about 120 people (you can't have standing customers like on a commuter train) That means you would need 936 train trips from Norcal to Socal and visa versa a day. @ Los Angeles @Sacramento a train will have to come, stop and be filled, and take off every 3 minutes 24 hours a day to do this.

    It is just impossible all around.

  4. Mark:

    And since most people want to travel during the day, it is more probable that the trains would have to go off every 1.5 minutes over a 12 hour shift. They better lay several layers of parallel track to accomplish that.

  5. A Critic:

    But just think about the spacious accommodations for those who do travel via the boondoggle! Why, each person might have a whole car or two to themselves! What luxury!

  6. NL_:

    It was often portrayed as a commuter plan, since it would make it possible to buy cheap homes in Merced and Fresno but still get to San Jose or San Francisco quickly. Right now people live in the central valley and commute to the Bay Area, because home prices are so cheap, but the local politicians want high-speed commutes so they can attract wealthier residents to enlarge the tax base.

    It's also pushed by local politicians because the situation in the Central Valley can feel pretty desperate at times. Lots of seasonal unemployment, high levels of property crime like grand theft auto. A massive construction project that will bring high-income, high-status professionals to the area is how politicians look busy. That's part of the reason local pols pushed to build UC-Merced in the area, and have been trying for years to get a med school built there.

  7. Ted Rado:

    What's the matter with leaving such decisions to competitva private enterprise? In the old days, railroad companies built tracks and ran trains where it was economically feasible to do so. Why not do that now?

  8. Agammamon:

    Because no business is willing to put up with the cost of compliance and planning. And if noone is willing to put up with the costs of government regulation and do something that the planners want then it must be a market failure (never a regulation failure) and so money must be appropriated.

  9. blokeinfrance:

    Maybe they predicted 117 million passenger miles and then dropped the miles part?
    So a trip that might be budgeted at $100 per ticket turns into $100 per mile in order to break even?

  10. Smock Puppet, Frequent Fantasy Flyer:

    Look, anyone with half a brain left California years ago, pretty much. So anyone who actually voted on this crap had about a 99% chance of being a complete and total widiot*.

    Widiot: Someone with a "Wisdom Quotient" score of more than 2 sigmas below mean standard distribution. Wisdom (the capacity to learn from experience) should not be confused with "Intellect" (the capacity to learn from books).

    Note that "IQ" and "WQ" have nearly no correlation -- you can be a brilliant fool, just think "Noam Chomsky".

    In other words, "widiots" are a class which includes about 99% of all serious liberals, including most residents of Cali.

    And if you think all this is just whimsy, you'd be almost "ha-ha-only serious" correct.

  11. Smock Puppet, Frequent Fantasy Flyer:

    >>> It is just impossible all around.

    Not in the least, we could just mandate that all government action -- state, local, and federal, including bureaucrats, not just elected officials -- be taken on trains.

    The fun part would be doing this, then we all get together and watch the show while we rig up some really spectacular track assignment errors.

  12. epobirs:

    They should be run out of town on a rail. A freight rail. Those work alright in economics.

  13. epobirs:

    The only way I could imagine moving to Merced is if I'd been sentenced to a facility there. Actually, the one night of my life I spent in jail was in Merced. There was police corruption involved and I was teenager with the carnival who couldn't prove I wasn't a runaway.