High-Speed Rail Cost Overrun Reporting Raises Questions of Media Bias

Are CA High-Speed Rail Central Valley overruns really an existential moment? Or costs associated with most mega-projects? Map via CAHSRA
Are CA High-Speed Rail Central Valley overruns really an existential moment? Or costs associated with most mega-projects? Map via CAHSRA

At its January 16 board meeting, the California High-Speed Rail Authority announced $2.8 billion in cost overruns on its Central Valley sections. Central Valley construction is already underway on 119 miles of track between Madera and Bakersfield. In 2016 the Central Valley segment was anticipated to cost $7.8 billion. This number has been revised upward to $10.6 billion, a 36 percent overrun.

CA High-Speed Rail revised costs for the Central Valley. Image via CAHSR staff report
CA High-Speed Rail revised costs for the Central Valley. Image via CAHSR staff report

CAHSR staff cited several factors behind the increased cost estimate: intrusion barriers, right-of-way acquisition costs, delays, agreements with third parties (including cities and counties), utility relocation, and more.

It will probably come as no surprise to Streetsblog readers that numerous media outlets had a field day criticizing high-speed rail.

The cost overruns took media attention away from what might have been a big story: the hiring of new CEO Brian Kelly. Kelly had been serving as the head of California State Transportation Agency since it was formed in 2013.

Given the Los Angeles Times’ history of bias against high-speed rail and national trends where media quotes transit critics more than highway critics, Times coverage of the overruns should be taken with a grain of salt. Last week’s Times article focuses on the project construction consultant’s “worst case scenario” remark. The Times then portrays these cost overruns as an “existential moment” for CaHSRA. The article cites longtime CaHSR critics Assemblyman Jim Patterson, Elizabeth Alexis, and James Moore. Moore was also interviewed by KPCC, where he advocated for stopping HSR construction because the state’s high-speed rail project “will never pay for itself” which is a standard that the media never seem to apply to highway construction.

Obviously, cost overruns are bad. Limited transportation dollars will not go as far as was anticipated. But are these overruns unique to rail?

According to CityLab, studies have found that the overwhelming majority of mega-projects experience major cost overruns: “University of Oxford scholar Bent Flyvbjerg analyzed 258 transportation infrastructure projects from around the world [mostly from the 1980s-1990s] and found that nine in ten exceeded their cost estimates. The overruns were greater on rail projects than road projects but averaged 28 percent across the board.”

UC Berkeley’s Karen Frick also studies mega-project cost overruns, famously profiled the escalating cost for the East Span of the Oakland Bay Bridge. That project ballooned from $250 million to $6.5 billion.

According to Frick and Flyvbjerg, major cost overruns are common for various types of projects – rail, highway, water, etc. – and common all over – from L.A. to Seattle to Boston to New York City.

A question that deserves more scrutiny is how the media portrays cost overruns. As noted, the L.A. Times provides plenty of dire coverage for CaHSR overruns.

The Times is also pretty diligent in reporting on cost overruns for L.A. Metro’s rail projects, including the Regional Connector subway, now projected to cost $1.75 billion, which is 28 percent over budget. Times Regional Connector coverage quotes the above-mentioned rail critic Moore, with Metro representatives providing a counterpoint.

Compare this to the Times coverage of the widening of the 405 Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass. The 405 project cost $1.6 billion, which was 55 percent higher than its original budget. The Times‘ 2013 article quoted suffering drivers awaiting too-long-delayed congestion relief. A 2016 wrap-up article portrays disputes between Metro and its contractor.

Times highway project coverage is nowhere near as ferocious and incessant as its coverage of rail. The media’s frequent windshield perspective never seem to questions whether highway project cost overruns present an “existential moment,” as the Times put it for CaHSR, for projects that expand car capacity.

14 thoughts on High-Speed Rail Cost Overrun Reporting Raises Questions of Media Bias

  1. In the very beginning the Authority brought Tudor Perini in although they were rated unqualified for the project. Their sole qualifications were a close association with Sen Feinstein and her husband and the delivery of vast amounts of political contributions to State and local officials. They “won” the LA Police HQ job ( a pretty simple office building) for about $100 million and finished the job around $500 million.

    Running the bullet train a few hundred miles across unpopulated farmlands of the central valley is not particularly difficult. However, the last hundred miles or so into Los Angeles and into San Francisco pose technical , financial and feasibility problems vastly greater than anything any of these folks have done.

    If you want a real budget it is pretty simple……. Put the retirement benefits of the legislature and the folks working on the bullet train at risk for cost overruns beyond the budget they present.

    The technical problems of getting the bullet train through the Tehacipi Mountains and the mountains surrounding LA are staggering.

    Proposals to open service on the central valley link to “generate income” are laughable. Very few public transit systems cover their direct operating costs from the fare box.

    It should not be lost on Californians that their ability to use the system depends on a small group of public employees not going on strike.

    For those traveling to or from Los Angles there’s also the very significant issue of getting across the city to the downtown terminal. Public transit for those carrying bags ? Hardly , The sad truth is that for most of the LA basin the car or an airline is a far more feasible way to make the journey . Flyers from the LA basin have the choice of four commercial airports.

    Those who want to continue to believe in the fairytale of political responsibility in Sacramento need only consider the vast unfunded public pension obligations, around $50,000 per family, or the legislatures mandate that California motor fuel contain MTBE which, as the scientists predicted, contaminated a huge number of drinking water wells and aquifers across the state. The Bay Bridge fiasco, the repetitive criminal behavior of Tudor Saliba , the one party corruption in Sacramento and the dumping of criminals onto our streets and public transit.

  2. CAHSR has a well-earned credibility problem. It isn’t the media. The best explanation is right from the mouth of Willie Brown, former mayor of San Francisco and former Speaker of the CA House. Flyvbjerg cited this quote in his 2014 study.

    Willie Brown (2013):”News that the Transbay Terminal is something like $300 million over budget should not come as a shock to anyone. We always knew the initial estimate was way under the real cost. Just like we never had a real cost for the [San Francisco] Central Subway or the [San Francisco-Oakland] Bay Bridge or any other massive construction project. So get off it. In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment. If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

    Flyvbjerg (2014): “Rarely has the tactical use by project advocates of cost underestimation, sunk costs, and lock-in to get projects started been expressed by an insider more plainly, if somewhat cynically. … Nevertheless, the nothing-would-ever-get-built argument has been influential with both practitioners and academics in megaproject management.”

  3. Many of the lawsuits that have been of real consequence are funded by big farmers, not little guys losing their house. Those same farmers own a lot of land all over the Central Valley, so I highly doubt that an alignment on the west side would’ve avoided those lawsuits because it would’ve hit the same NIMBYs. Same for the ones that were filed (or joined) by local government, including Kings County and City of Bakersfield.

    Meanwhile, the ballot measure required statewide approval and wasn’t exactly a smashing success at the ballot box. I doubt it would’ve mustered the required 50% if the “milk run” wasn’t included because there’s absolutely no reason for the rest of the state to tax themselves to pay for LA and SF to get themselves a fast train. Of course, if LA and SF still want that direct connection that bad, then they should by all means pony up the money and build it.

  4. Land acquisition costs would be lower and lawsuits less likely considering the land is less developed and lower priced on the Westside. This alignment would get from SF to LA faster than a milk run through all the valley towns that would be better served by standard rail that connected with HSR at Tracy and Bakersfield.. That was the recommendation of French TGV train operators who daresay know more about HSR than the numbnuts running CHSRA.

  5. The major portion of the problems with the project to date are due to NIMBYs and lawsuits. How would a routing on the west side of the valley negate them? At the very least, a “failed” construction of the existing alignment results in improved Amtrak service through the Central Valley. If a west side alignment were used and faced the same cost overruns, it’d be much easier to decide to just completely abandon it since it connects no one with nothing.

  6. How true. I read TRAC’s newsletter when I take the Capitol Corridor and for a while I was a member and went to their annual conference when it was in San Francisco. They put forth some reasoned analyses of why CAHSR should be routed via Altamont, the west side of the valley and the Grapevine instead of building a new easement over Pacheco Pass and running it through the valley towns, Tehachapi and Palmdale. TRAC’s ideas weren’t pie in the sky. They had done serious number crunching. Sadly, I predict CAHSR will be a huge fail.

  7. Like TRAC has been trying to do for years. The attacks from the fanboys were ruthless.

  8. Hello, as the saying goes, it’s a newspaper’s duty to print the news and raise hell, not be fanboys for public works projects gone awry.

    I think that the focus on the CAHSR project is due to the sheer size of the overruns. The $2.8 billion cost overrun on the Central Valley portion alone are almost twice the entire project cost of the Sepulveda Pass widening. The mind boggles at what the cost overrun for the entire CAHSR project will be. Also, as the study points out, “[t]he overruns were greater on rail projects than road projects” so the heightened focus on rail projects is appropriate.

    The editors and writers at Streetsblog need to stop being fanboys for poorly executed transit projects and start raising some hell.

  9. “Jerry Brown has been a proponent of high-speed rail for over three decades. When he was first Governor of California, from 1975-1983, Brown signed legislation to study high-speed rail. During his 1992 presidential campaign, he vigorously promoted high-speed rail in nationally televised Democratic debates.”


  10. The Bay Area and Sacramento media were (rightfully) brutal in their coverage of the Bay Bridge overruns; actually, their in-depth reporting extended to the entire seismic retrofit program. Caltrans, MTC, the contractors, and the enabling politicians were called out repeatedly for poor quality work, questionable decision-making, lack of transparency, and outright misinformation (which, by the way, are the very things that Flyvbjerg calls out, in “Megaprojects and Risk”, as contributors to massive cost overruns).

    Shame on the LA Times if they gave a pass to the Sepulveda Pass overruns, but don’t fault them for robustly reporting the Authority’s continued pattern of over-promising and under-delivering.

  11. Seems desperate, to try and correlate other projects cost overruns as some legitimacy on HSR. Sure, other projects have increased costs, but that’s a different situation, in levels of magnitude and legal promises made at the time of voter approval. The public was misled/lied to. Jerry Brown hoped/expected both federal help and a groundswell of business/sponsor enthusiasm for his signature project – but it simply hasn’t happened. No money from the Feds, and the Jesuit-optimism expoused by Brown has gone stale, to put it mildly. These billions could be better spent.

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