Has California overshot the runway?
It’s a question we need to ask ourselves as California’s leaders allow problematic and questionable megaprojects to keep moving forward while basic infrastructure deteriorates.
There was a time when our dams and aqueducts that allowed us to change the course plotted by nature by not letting water be restricted to water basins by physical barriers were considered a candidate for of their wonders of the world.
When it came to freeways, we were the envy of the land.
That was then and this is now.
The list of aging infrastructure that needs addressing is staggering.
Yet instead of re-investing heavily into what we have built to assure public safety and extend useful lives of everything from massive dams to the California Aqueduct we’re continuing to squander money on the high-speed rail project.
This is not hyperbole. The near collapse of Oroville Dam in February of 2017 caught everybody by surprise except engineers that have been dutifully issuing annual reports about the need to re-invest in existing critical infrastructure. Those reports are ignored with an incredible level of indifference so we can chase shiny new objectives that will make only a marginal difference in pressing needs.
The twin tunnels under the Delta that have morphed into a singular myopic tunnel will only add more infrastructures we can’t seem to upkeep.
It was sold on protecting imported water supplies to Los Angeles in the event of a Bay Area earthquake that could crumble aging levees.
At the same time the aqueduct is crumbling.
The California Water Commission last month noted the critical aqueduct is now at 33 percent of design capacity in some locations due to subsidence.
Wouldn’t it be wiser to fix what we have instead of jeopardizing the Delta ecological system to bore a tunnel that will end up being less than promised because of the slow destruction of the 222 miles of aqueduct that 27 million Californians rely on that runs from San Luis Reservoir to the pumping stations at the base of the Tehachapis? Better yet find an in-Delta solution as some have suggested and shore up levees and address subsidence issues instead of pouring billions in a dark hole constructing a tunnel.
Perhaps no single project is a bigger monument to the short-sightedness of politicians more worried about their legacy and making sure construction constituencies that are pros at pumping campaign contributions to the right people are taken care of than the mother of all government vanity projects – the California high-speed rail debacle.
Given we are about to turn the page on a new year, the state is required to have the 119-mile high-speed segment between Merced and Bakersfield up and running by the end of December 2022. That’s the stipulation for the state receiving $3.5 billion in federal funds to help build the initiative segment of the Jerry Brown fantasy train.
Rest assured that is as likely to happen as it is for Colin Kaepernick to sign a 10-year deal to play with the Dallas Cowboys.
The rail authority – whose numbers are not solid– now says the infamous Train to Nowhere will be completed by 2026. However, trains won’t be running from Merced with 87,000 residents to Bakersfield with 347,000 people until 2028.
The best part is the connection between Los Angeles to San Francisco that voters were hoodwinked into believing would be up and running by 2029. The original timeline called for service to start between San Jose and Bakersfield – aand not just Merced to Bakersfield – by 2025.
Now the promise is service between LA and SF to start rolling by 2033.
Rolling might be a bite generous. The trains won’t be moving along between stations at 220 mph as promised. A hybrid system of traditional heavy rail at both ends and high-speed rail Merced and Bakersfield is expected to happen instead.
Not only would that not beat a commercial flight between LA and SF but the time such a hybrid trip requires won’t beat traveling between the two cities via Interstate 5.
And if holes continue to be punched through high-speed timelines that are about as sturdy as toilet tissue, the odds are the lame version of “high-speed” rail won’t be operational when the 2035 ban on new vehicles being sold that rely on carbon-based fuels goes into effect.
And should that happen, one must ask the obvious question: How will semi-high-speed rail be justified as a project to battle global warming?
The honest answer is it was only a marginal green project to begin with in terms of its realistic impacts.
And if the final cost estimate is now dependable at $87 billion – roughly double the original cost projection – how much more effectively could that money be spent on solving air quality issues and reducing congestion?
It would be wiser to cut the losses at $13 billion assuming the Merced to Bakersfield segment can actually be built for that amount. That would free up debt capacity to tackle much more beneficial issues.
On that list would be reading congestion on east-west commute corridors in both the south state and north state, fixing the California Aqueduct, repairing levees, and making sure dams don’t collapse, among other things.
We do not need new “technology baubles” when we can’t maintain what we have.
The shiny political toy that high-speed rail is will come at a steep price if our water conveyance systems collapse and our dams fail.
The ironic thing is that Gov. Gavin Newsom started his term being bluntly honest about the fact high-speed rail needs to stop in Merced and Bakersfield and then figure a way to make a rail system work that is more old school than Buck Rogers.
But then someone had to fire off a Tweet and suddenly realism got swept up to pandering politics.
We need to find a way to fulfill Newsom’s pragmatic assessment before we severely overcommit to the leading candidate for the biggest financial boondoggle since the dawn of government.
By rethinking connections to the Bay Area using the Altamont Corridor Express template for Merced to San Jose Service and doing something similar in the southern end, the state could still have an upgraded heavy rail system for passenger movements probably for a price of less than $30 billion.
Such a strategy would avoid depleting available future funding needed to prevent California’s critical water and flood control infrastructure from collapsing.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Ceres Courier or 209 Multimedia Corporation.