California’s high-speed rail project may face cancellation vote in 2020

Californian voters may be asked to vote on whether or not to cancel the state’s high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, if an initiative launched by a Conservative radio host succeeds in attracting 500,000 signatures.

Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego city councillor turned radio personality, described the rail link as "a colossal failure", and said the vote would stop "good money being thrown after bad".

DeMaio has already succeeded in organising "proposition 6", a vote on reversing a planned 12-cent increase in California’s petrol tax and a hike in vehicle registration fees, which will be held next month.

Both anti-high-speed-rail measures are supported by the state’s Republican party as a way of boosting its chances in the approaching US mid-term elections.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a public policy professor at the University of Southern California, told The State website that the issue was being put forward "because Trump doesn’t generate turnout, doesn’t generate excitement in California".

The move to cancel the rail link may gather momentum, given the negative publicity attracted the project has had, and its lukewarm support from Californian voters.

Voters approved $10bn in bonds in 2008 to begin what has become California’s largest infrastructure scheme. But the cost estimate at that time was $40bn, a figure that has now inflated to $77bn. The final cost could rise to $98bn, according to a report from the state’s rail authorities in March.

At the same time, the expected completion date has been put back from 2029 to 2033.

The Construction Dive website summed up the scheme’s problems as "delays in land acquisitions, route changes, change orders, the prospect of tunnelling through mountain ranges to reach Southern California, design issues, a critical public and bad press".

In May of this year, the Los Angeles Times commissioned a survey that found that only 31% of voters in the state want to continue building the scheme. The paper commented: "The survey confirmed what has been consistent in California public opinion for half a decade: The public has never abandoned its dream of a high-speed transportation system but rejects the rail authority’s performance in building it.

If a vote is held in 2020, and the proposition is successful, the state will have to halt work and use any unspent funds to pay for other transportation projects.

Image: Work under way last month on the "Fresno trench" (CHSRA)

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