Soviet dictator Josef Stalin once allegedly remarked in private that: “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic,” which is something he knew about, given the kind of statistics his regime racked up. The point is a good one, though. It’s easier to be horrified at a particular person’s death than at a faceless list of fatalities.

I have a corollary that deals with a less-horrific subject: “Squandering tens of thousands of dollars is an outrage; wasting billions of dollars is a line item.” It’s why people get more upset about a double-dipping bureaucrat with a $250,000 pension than a potential $1 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities. The former has a face; the latter is just terminology.

California’s governments are masters at waste. Many Californians know something is amiss — especially after the Legislature recently voted for a $52 billion gas-tax increase over 10 years — but it’s easier to cite statistics than to give a name to the many little fiscal tragedies included in that budget.

Now Anaheim has its own transportation boondoggle representing everything that’s wrong in state and local governments. It’s hard to miss the unusual-looking 67,000-square-foot transportation “hub” that sits off the 57 Freeway near the Honda Center. It’s referred to as ARTIC, an acronym for the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center. The name rightly brings to mind chilling thoughts of a vast fiscal wasteland.

The project’s supporters had originally predicted it would serve 10,000 riders daily, but it serves about 2,800 riders daily and a bit more on days with baseball and hockey games. It was supposed to pay for itself. But the Register reports it is only expected to earn $1.4 million of its annual $3.9 million budget. A lucrative naming-rights deal hasn’t materialized, as hoped for.

ARTIC was pitched as a great benefit for the City of Anaheim, but now its deficit will be paid by city taxpayers after the Anaheim Tourism Improvement District — representing resort-area hotel owners –decided not to pick up the tab, as it has previously done (using its 2 percent hotel tax). That’s pretty cold, given that ATID had pushed for the project, which was largely designed to help that district. Now the district will fund its own shuttle system to serve member hotels directly.

One justification for the massive hub, rising out of a parking lot like a giant turtle or overblown Quonset hut (take your pick), is the state’s planned high-speed rail system. Of course, backers of that $68 billion-plus bullet-train system can’t yet figure out how to pay for it, especially with a Republican Congress that has its own boondoggles to fund. The current rail proposal is a far cry from the one promised to voters, which has been the source of much debate. The bigger problem, for now, is its backers can’t figure out how to send a train over the Tehachapi Mountains cost-effectively.

As the Los Angeles Times reported after ARTIC’s December 2014 opening: “Backers say the aim wasn’t just to create a train station but to also make a statement about the future.” Former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, a top advocate for ARTIC and the bullet train, told the newspaper the Anaheim transportation hub is “planned to be a part of a vibrant community that’s going to grow up around it for a long time.”

By the time a bullet train completes its run from San Francisco to the Anaheim station in a now-predicted three hours (more than twice the time of a Southwest flight from JWA to SFO), that modernistic building will either be a historic monument or ready for the bulldozer.

ARTIC quite obviously isn’t living up to its promises. The high-speed rail project is perhaps the most notorious state example of an infrastructure project that is violating some supposedly inviolable promises supporters made to voters in the 2008 election that secured initial funding for the project. The courts are allowing it, but that doesn’t erase the reality.

There’s an obvious lesson here: Don’t believe them. Don’t ever trust politicians touting big-spending projects and certainly don’t trust their statistics.

Image by Kit Leong

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