Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The HSR Cloud without the silver lining

One of the elder statesmen (he may object to that appellation) of political journalism in California is the Sacramento Bee's Dan Walters.  When he writes, the state government "listens."  Dan has been a close observer of the high-speed rail project in Sacramento for a long time.  He finds this project "damaged goods."  Here is his latest overview. 

The rail authority's process of implementation of what can only be called a vague vision has been inept, politically misguided and selfishly motivated. The feckless self-promotional advertising campaign and public relations ineptness has antagonized elected representatives and citizens alike. 

It's becoming very difficult to keep the word "boondoggle" out of any high-speed rail discussion.  Perhaps what is most appalling and galling is the persistence by the Democrats in their support of this obviously failing affront to common sense.

I concede that some of the behavior of the three Governors who rejected the federal HSR funding, all Republicans, is less than appropriate in other domains.  I would have expected more judicious reasoning in their efforts to restore their respective states' economies.  But about the HSR they were dead on.  These promised federal funds are nothing if not bait for catching the states in a bottomless requirement to supply tax dollars to sustain this project during construction and subsequently, during operation.

Would that our own governor in California were to wise up to that one reality.
Dan Walters: High-speed train money still cloudy
By Dan Walters
Published: Monday, Feb. 21, 2011 - 12:00 am 

When Florida Gov. Rick Scott canceled his state's high-speed rail project – emulating what happened in Ohio and Wisconsin – California bullet train advocates immediately sought diversion of federal funds to their state.

The High-Speed Rail Authority plans to begin a tiny section of the system in the San Joaquin Valley next year, clearly hoping that it would be a psychological – and political – commitment even though the project's financial dimensions are still cloudy.

When voters narrowly approved a $9.95 billion bond issue in 2008 (with a boosterish official summary that courts later ruled was illegally written by the Legislature), the cost was pegged at $33 billion. It later rose to $43 billion, and outside experts say it could be as much as $65 billion.

The HSRA is now seeking input from private investors but acknowledges that they probably would want "revenue guarantees," meaning operating subsidies from taxpayers, which state law specifically prohibits.

All of this might be cleared up if the HSRA produced a long-delayed business plan, and HSRA officials got a tongue-lashing about the stall during a recent budget hearing.

Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, complained that "you've already decided on the route, and yet we lack an updated financial plan of who's paying for this. We lack legal analysis about any concept of operating subsidy. We lack a business plan that really tells us what is the modeling we can have faith in about the ridership numbers."

Lowenthal, who has since introduced a bill to reconstitute the HSRA, aimed his remarks at agency boss Roelof van Ark, who with other bullet train boosters is pushing the San Joaquin Valley segment and even organizing political demonstrations for it.

E-mails, some written by van Ark, last week outlined plans to pack a congressional hearing in Fresno this week with supporters, including contractors. The hearing – unrelated to high-speed rail – is being conducted by House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Florida.

One van Ark e-mail said that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Vice President Joe Biden had urged him to "ensure that the John Mica hearings in California are well-attended," while another told a public relations operative, "trust you are also helping to ensure that the industry and labor are out in full force to flood any negative contributors."

An underling told van Ark that "our goal is to turnout 300-400 people."

Jeffrey Barker, van Ark's deputy, says it's "absolutely appropriate" to organize to show California support for high-speed rail.

When Scott turned down federal bullet train money, he said it is critical to make smart investments with taxpayer dollars, "and I believe our state will be better served by spending these funds on projects that will benefit Florida and not turn into a spending boondoggle."

Good advice for any state.

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