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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Column: Jarrett Stepman

Sarah Winchester was a loon, that’s for sure. If you have ever been to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, you will probably come to the same conclusion that I have. The strange and baffling architecture – along with endless rooms to nowhere – make the house an interesting curiosity.

Since Halloween is coming up, I thought I would use this spooky California destination to illustrate a frightening California problem. The Winchester House is, of course, named after the man who created Winchester rifles. He amassed a fortune from his lucrative business and passed it on to his wife when he died.

She felt great pangs of guilt that her husband’s creation was used for violence, so she came to what was – to her – the most logical course of action. She used her vast inherited fortune to construct an elaborate, never-ending, illogical and expensive mansion. This construction would confuse the angry ghosts of those who had been slain by gunmen wielding Winchester rifles.

Obviously lacking her husband’s business sense, Old Lady Winchester wasted her fortune on what amounts to nothing more than a modern day curiosity. Interesting, but altogether useless. Unfortunately, I’m afraid the modern day California High Speed Rail, or “bullet train,” project reminds me of Winchester’s endless construction to nowhere.

Now that the project has been voted on and approved by the California electorate, we must all hope that it is successful. If you take a look at the official website, cahighspeedrail.ca.gov, you can read – and see – all of the amazing things that the new train will do for Californians.

The list of promises is long. Reduced automobile traffic, reduced carbon emissions, speedy travel, silent running and 450,000 permanent jobs are some of the most prominent benefits. This all sounds wonderful doesn’t it? It seems like it is too good to be true.

That’s because it is. The bullet train will be a financial disaster for the state of California, and will drain the state coffers for decades to come. The project got the go-ahead from state voters last year, but many obstacles could derail the enormous project. In a time when California can’t afford to pay its employees on time, issues furloughs to teachers and dramatically raises fees for students, how can it afford to undertake this massive project?

The bullet train will be like the Winchester House with its winding, confusing and mostly illogical layout. The train must pass through many political districts that contain people and politicians with conflicting interests. Do you trust California representatives to get this done? The last time I checked, approval ratings of the California legislature were just above 10 percent. Some citizens will be outraged that a train will be passing through their neighborhood. Others will be angry that it doesn’t pass through their neighborhood. Environmental groups will be infuriated by the damage to ecosystems. The list of inevitable grievances is long.

The price tag for the bullet train project has been estimated to be $45 billion, a hefty bill. This, however, woefully under-predicts the eventual cost. Odds are the cost would be double that amount, like most other large, government-funded projects. To pay off the enormous bill, the project must be wildly successful once completed. The rather optimistic predictions given on the official site of 88 million to 117 million riders per year by 2035 leaves me skeptical.

Instead of a massive, complex, time consuming and budget-busting bullet train, California should focus on smaller, more manageable problems. Perhaps improving upon the public transportation already in place is the way to go. Simply filling the enormous amount of street potholes would be another useful and appreciated endeavor.

Let us not waste time and money on a state-funded Winchester Mystery House. Instead of soaking up the vast inheritance of an eccentric millionaire, it will be soaking up your hard earned money.

JARRETT STEPMAN can’t wait to take the flashlight tour at the Winchester Mystery House. You can contact him at jstepman@ucdavis.edu.


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