Bullet Train Wrecks

The irreplaceable George Will has a hilarious column in today’s Washington Post, describing California’s high-speed train foibles. A “bullet train” route is eventually supposed to run from Los Angeles north through the Central Valley and then Bay Area places like Atherton all the way to San Francisco, at a price that’s been estimated as high as $100 billion. For now, they’re trying to build a first segment to connect places like Fresno and Bakersfield, with the help of a $3.3 billion federal grant.

You’ll realize how funny this is if you’ve ever been to downtown Fresno (a small-scale Detroit, without the charm) or for that matter Atherton—home to the likes of H-P CEO Meg Whitman, who spent $140 million of her own money on an unsuccessful run for governor and (I wager) will not ever have a bullet train barreling through her backyard. This is what I have called in earlier posts, see here and there, the Constitution of Affluence: we have built institutions that will pursue impractical projects, even fetishes, regardless of cost (all of the money for the California is borrowed). Once underway, the train wrecks are hard to stop. Welcome to Fresno.

George Will’s column ends on two important notes of hope. One, some states (including Wisconsin and Florida) have actually said “no” to federal train grants, fearing that they would be saddled with the costs of running the hopeless boondoggles. This is noteworthy because ordinarily, state politicians have the time horizon of a mole: they take the federal funds now and let their successors deal with the legacy costs. Apparently, though, there is a learning curve; we’ll just have to flatten it. Two, California sports dozens of No-Toad-Left-Behind environmental laws. To build the train, you’d have to suspend most of them—either that, or decades of litigation. The Constitution of Affluence has begun to devour its children, and not a moment too soon.