Whenever politicians spend large sums of taxpayer money on pet projects, they invariably overstate their supposed economic benefits, particularly creating oodles of “good-paying jobs.”

They all do it, using a deceptive assumption that if one worker works one day on the project, it’s counted as a “job.”

Ralph Vartabedian, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who – thank goodness – specializes in telling us what’s really happening, or not, in the state’s woebegone high-speed rail project, punctures its job creation myth in a recent article.

Vartabedian cites a banner on a bullet train viaduct in Fresno claiming “5,000 jobs and counting” but reveals that while consuming many billions of dollars, the project has employed only about 1,000 construction workers at any one time.

“The boast of 5,000 jobs refers to the number of workers dispatched from union halls,” he wrote. “Each time a worker is sent to a job site, whether for one day or hundreds of days, it counts as a job for the purpose of the banners.

“Rail authority Chief Executive Brian Kelly defended the worker count as a valid measure of progress, saying the authority has been doing it for years.”

In other words, since inflated job numbers have been used for years, Kelly would have us believe it’s a valid practice.

In fact as Vartabedian discovered from analyzing bullet train data, “hourly workers have received about $265 million of the $6.1 billion that has been spent on construction, representing just 4%. Of the total $8.1 billion spent on the project, the labor portion is even smaller, 3%. The $265 million is less than what the rail authority spends every three months.”

The much-inflated job creation claims are important because construction union support has been one of the most important factors in keeping the project alive despite lacking a rational justification.

The original vision, backed by voters, was for a statewide north-south system of high-speed travel, but no one ever came up with a plan for financing such a system, which would cost upwards of $100 billion.

The Fresno structures, dubbed “Stonehenge” by local critics, are part of a very limited stretch in the San Joaquin Valley, financed by some state bonds, a federal grant and a share of proceeds from the state’s auctions of greenhouse gas emission permits. At the moment, it would run from a few miles north of Fresno to a few miles north of Bakersfield.

Gov. Gavin Newsom came close to killing the project after taking office in 2019, only to backtrack under pressure from construction unions.

Newsom then declared that he wants to expand the current project northward a few miles to Merced and southward a few miles to Bakersfield, assuming that someday it could be connected to the Bay Area and Los Angeles. But that also added billions of dollars to the projected costs.

Newsom’s latest budget proposal would appropriate $4.2 billion from remaining voter-approved bonds to advance his version of the project and mentions “potential federal funds” to fill the remaining financial hole – a reference to President Joe Biden’s ambitious infrastructure program.

However, Newsom’s plan doesn’t sit well with some legislative leaders who would prefer improving commuter transit. Some bullet train money has already been shifted to electrifying the Caltrain commuter service on the San Francisco peninsula, and Southern California lawmakers, led by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, want similar diversions for their region.

The commuter projects would probably use inflated job creation claims as well, but at least they would be serving real needs, rather than a unrealistic pipedream.


 

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary

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