America: Losing Its Capabilities?

The United States used to dazzle the world when it came to construction: whether it was the Chrysler or Empire State Buildings, the astounding materiel ramp-up during World War II, the atomic bomb (for better or worse), the Panama Canal (when other nations failed), and the interstate highway system are just a few of the many, many examples. 
When it came to railroading, consider "The Overseas Railroad" from Miami to Key West (also known as "Flagler's Folly"). Amazingly, that railroad was built and financed by a single entrepreneur, Henry Flagler. The government wasn't involved. 

Then, there was the Transcontinental Railroad. It was chartered by Congress and the Lincoln Administration and built in the 1860's between Omaha and Sacramento. Its 1,928 mile length crossed two mountain ranges (including the Sierra in California with its abominable winters). The entire railroad was completed in just six years using picks and shovels. 
A train on the original Transcontinental Railroad route in 2023. If you look
closely, the route for the tracks had to be dynamited out as they climbed the
mountain. Then, they had to remove the debris using picks and shovels.
That's why the latest news involving California's high speed railroad is so very discouraging. In 2005, it was sold to voters as 500 miles of high-speed rail (220 mph) between Los Angeles and San Francisco and ready for passengers by 2020. Instead, it didn't begin construction until 2015. And, instead of being ready in 2020, only a partial segment (over flat terrain) is expected to open -- between Merced and Bakersfield -- during 2030 or later! Keep in mind that we have mechanized bulldozers, excavators and tunnel boring equipment today which were mere dreams when the Transcontinental and Overseas Railroads were being built -- so progress, once construction starts, should be much faster today!

The cost has ballooned from $30 billion to more than $100 billion of which only $25 billion has been raised. Nancy Pelosi made a big announcement Tuesday that the feds are going to chip in an additional $3 billion, but that is just a drop in the bucket of the project's deficit. Many question whether it will ever be operational.
California high speed rail bridge under construction in 2019
Regardless of your politics and opinion of the high-speed rail project, it was approved and construction has begun. The fact is that, construction-wise, when compared to the Transcontinental and Overseas Railroads, this is a piece of cake! The lack of progress is a genuine black mark on our nation. We may be losing, or have lost, the ability to take on and complete mega-projects in a timely and cost-effective manner. Heck, we couldn't even get the cost estimate remotely correct. 

Whether this project was (in the words of some pundits) "primarily a vehicle for graft" is also beside the point. What does it say about our nation that graft of this magnitude is tolerated? One hundred billion dollars is hardly buying a politician a drink at lunch. 

We are used to Washington being utterly dysfunctional. 
What is a new is that, while the State of California is the defacto "contractor," the private sector companies seem to fall farther behind by the day (if news reports are correct) with no real end in sight. This past March, a legislative committee established to give a "peer-review" to the project wrote:

Since its inception in 2008, the Group has issued 18 letters and members have testified before Legislative and Congressional committees 15 times. In reviewing past letters and testimony, a consistent theme emerges: 1) project costs, schedules, and ridership estimates are uncertain and subject to significant risk of deteriorating, a typical experience for mega-projects; 2) the project is underfunded, and its financing is unstable, raising costs and making effective management difficult if not impossible; 3) more legislative oversight is needed. This letter reinforces the message, but with a sense of urgency over the ever-higher stakes...

Not exactly encouraging. 

Thank about this: China has 26,000 miles of high-speed rail in operation. Europe has a lesser system. It is America, evidently, that can't seem to do this. 

The acid test will be whether the really fast (if not officially "high speed") rail project just approved between Los Angeles and Las Vegas gets built for reasonable cost and in a reasonable amount of time. That will be tackled by the people who has successfully built Brightline between Miami and Orlando. They are now running more than 20 trains each day.

The Brightline West people believe they can get it done in five years -- before the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. 

If the Brightline people can pull this off -- against what is, in places, rather difficult terrain -- then I withdraw my concerns. In fact, built on time and on budget, the Brightline project is likely to be a huge commercial success. That would be wonderful for all involved. 

Cross your fingers. 


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