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Pull the plug on California bullet train, says San Jose Mercury News

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Project is billions over budget, but backers say stick it out

State Environmental Laws Threaten To Slow CA High Speed Rail Project
Construction in Fresno.
Photo by California High-Speed Rail Authority via Getty Images

In a Friday editorial, the San Jose Mercury News tried to derail the ongoing California High-Speed Rail project, complaining that, among other things, the plan to connect northern and southern California via bullet train is billions of dollars over budget.

The paper isn’t wrong about the numbers: At a January 16 meeting, the California High-Speed Rail Authority [CHSRA] acknowledged the cost of building the Central Valley portion of the line—from Bakersfield to Madera—is now projected at $2.8 billion more than previously planned, putting the final bill at $10.6 billion.

Mercury-News says that “at the very least” an audit is in order:

If the California High-Speed Rail Authority could deliver the $45 billion Sacramento-to-San Diego system that voters were promised in Proposition 1A nearly a decade ago, we’d be supportive. But it’s not even close.

[...] Now the plans are for linking Los Angeles and San Francisco at a price of $64 billion, estimated in 2016. That tab will likely increase when the rail authority releases new numbers in March.

In 2011, CHSRA said its estimates for the entire trans-California plan were up to some $98 billion, but also warned the whole thing could get as pricey as $118 billion.

Rendering of the California High-Speed Rail project in San Jose. Rendering courtesy of California High Speed Rail

Voters approved 1A and its then-$40 billion budget with 52.7 percent of the vote. Note that the Mercury-News endorsed 1A, ironically because “putting [it] off will only increase the costs.”

The LA Times, which also supported 1A at the time, chimed in today, complaining that “mismanagement, missteps, and bad luck” had pushed the bullet train plan “off the rails” and calling for an audit as well.

Other parties jumped to defend the rail line over the weekend, including State Senator Scott Wiener, who drew comparisons to local newspaper San Francisco Chronicle’s midstream criticism of BART decades ago.

And Streetsblog cites Citylab’s 2013 blog, noting that large-sale civic projects always go over budget—28 percent on average, but higher for rail projects.

The reason, according to Oxford researcher Bent Flyvbjerg, is human nature:

From a psychological standpoint, people are saddled with a cognitive bias that causes them to be unjustifiably upbeat (some might say delusional) about the prospects of their own plans. So they do whatever it takes to get them approved, certain that whatever problems have plagued others in the past will be avoided.

There’s even a term for it in psychology—planning fallacy.

“Erroneous intutious resemble visual illusions in [that] both types of error remain compellingly attractive even when the person is fully aware of their nature,” according to a 1977 paper defining the term.

CHSRA plans to connect LA to San Francisco via bullet train by 2029, with the first section of the line between Bakersfield and San Jose running by 2025. However, the June 2017 estimate may be revised in light of overruns.