Two disheartening stories -- first, California's high speed rail debacle.
Sold to the public in 2008 as a visionary plan to whisk riders along at 220 miles an hour, making the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in a little over two and a half hours, the project promised to attract most of the necessary billions from private investors, to operate without ongoing subsidies and to charge fares low enough to make it competitive with cheap flights. With those assurances, 53.7 percent of voters said yes to a $9.95 billion bond referendum to get the project started. But the assurances were at best wishful thinking, at worst an elaborate con.
The total construction cost estimate has now more than doubled to $68 billion from the original $33 billion, despite trims in the routes planned. The first, easiest-to-build, segment of the system -- the "train to nowhere" through a relatively empty stretch of the Central Valley -- is running at least four years behind schedule and still hasn't acquired all the needed land. Predicted ticket prices to travel from LA to the Bay have shot from $50 to more than $80. State funding is running short. Last month's cap-and-trade auction for greenhouse gases, expected to provide $150 million for the train, yielded a mere $2.5 million. And no investors are lining up to fill the $43 billion construction-budget gap.
Now, courtesy of Los Angeles Times reporter Ralph Vartabedian, comes yet another damning revelation: When the Spanish construction company Ferrovial submitted its winning bid for a 22-mile segment, the proposal included a clear and inconvenient warning: "More than likely, the California high speed rail will require large government subsidies for years to come." Ferrovial reviewed 111 similar systems around the world and found only three that cover their operating costs.
Second, the end of scientific glass blowers.
Here in Caltech's one-man glass shop, where Gerhart transforms a researcher's doodles into intricate laboratory equipment, craftsmanship is king. No two pieces of scientific glassware are the same, and for more than two decades, students and Nobel laureates alike have begun each project with Gerhart's blessing that, yes, he can create the tools to make their experiments possible.
But Gerhart, 71, is retiring, and the search is on to find someone, anyone, who can fill his shoes. In a cost-cutting world of machines and assembly plants, few glass blowers remain with the level of mastery needed at research hubs like Caltech.
"He's a somewhat dying breed," said Sarah Reisman, who relied on Gerhart to create 20 maze-like contraptions for her synthetic organic chemistry lab. "There just aren't as many scientific glass blowers anymore, and certainly not ones that have Rick's level of experience. Even a fraction of that experience, I think, just isn't out there."
We can't build anything new, and we're even losing the ability to build many old things.