Billions in California bond funding for a north-south high-speed rail line. Strong political backing from the Governor and President. A controversial routing, with make-believe ridership and cost projections. Engineering and planning handled not by Caltrans, but a Legislative aid by the name Mehdi Morshed. Murky connections between government backers and corporate beneficiaries of the project.
No, it isn’t 2009, and this isn’t the California High-Speed Rail Authority. The year is 1982. But everything else is the same.
Richard Trainor’s Paradise Lost? describes the now-forgotten history of California’s first attempt to build a bullet train. On October 12, 1982, AB3647 became California law. It provided $1.25 billion in tax-exempt revenue bonds for the design and construction of a “Shinkansen-type bullet train.”
In 1982 (as is the case today), Caltrans had world-class engineers. Rather than leverage those capabilities, a new organization would be created to design the statewide rail system. Sound familiar?
The passage of AB 3647 stunned many observers, including Adriana Gianturco, who had been led to believe that a bullet train would fall under the aegis of Caltrans. In fact, Alan Boyd and Larry Gilson of American High Speed Rail had promised Gianturco when she met with them in the spring of 1982 that Caltrans would still be involved in the project. Gianturco told me this when I interviewed her in the spring of 1983. Gianturco then found that Caltrans was cut out of the process entirely. American High Speed Rail Corporation would instead build the bullet train with private engineering and design, and construction firms like the Irvine Company and the Fluor Corporation, the two biggest developers in Orange County, and both politically wired.
The selection of the route, and the lack of community involvement generated considerable opposition (not unlike the current controversy in Meno Park and Palo Alto):
The bullet train process and the low-ball legislation outraged a number of environmental groups and citizens along the route. AHSRC held a number of public and legislative meetings in an attempt to mollify them with some pork.
As is the case in 2009, funding for the project was put in place based on an erroneous business plan. Once the ridership numbers received greater scrutiny, support for the project evaporated. Will history repeat?
At one legislative meeting, Jess Unruh was called to testify and said: “I am here to bite the bullet on this bullet train.” Unruh, the former all-powerful Assembly Speaker, confessed that he too had been promised studies showing how the bullet train would produce such fantastic ridership figures that it would shortly be in the black, with the ability to cover the tax-exempt state bonds.
At another hearing, the Senate Transportation Committee heard from Jonathan Richmond, visitng Fullbright scholar and transportation expert:
Jonathan Richmond presented the Senate Transportation Committee and the assembled press with the theretofore “secret” Arthur D. Little study, which had been funded with the AMTRAK loan to AHSRC.
Richmond tore it to shreds. The studies were flawed, said Richmond. The numbers in the Arthur Little report didn’t make sense. They wouldn’t stand up; they were make-believe. Richmond demonstrated that the methodology used to assemble the figures showing the bullet train could operate without further state funding was insupportable, until John Foran shut him up. AHSRC tried to undo the damage, but it was too late. Their credibility was shot.
Six months later, the project was dead.