Friday, August 26, 2011

Jerry Brown and his banner of HSR, fluttering in the breeze

Governor Jerry Brown was in on the ground floor of planning for high-speed rail several decades ago. He hasn't changed his mind.  Whatever reasons or ideological impetus he entertained in the eighties in supporting this vision, his reasoning today is different since circumstances are different, by which I mean, the state economy. 

Machine politics has a long history in California, and the Democrats have been in the dominant position for a considerable time.  Brown has been part of that back-room political game, coming from a multi-generational political family.  

High-SpeedRail is a political project; not a transportation project.  It has been and continues to be promoted for reasons having nothing to do with transit or transportation. Today's political mantra is clear and simple: jobs and the economy. 

Those are the two central problems confronting the Democrats, led by the Obama Administration, that must be fixed before the 2012 elections.  The California High-Speed Rail project is a pawn in this game.  

It should go without saying that it is the intention of the Republicans for the Democrats to not be able to fix those two crises -- jobs and the economy -- in order to prevent the Obama re-election and for the Republicans to gain seats in both Congressional Houses.  

So the two Parties are conflicted over high-speed rail accordingly, the Democrats now seeing this as a jobs program funded with federal stimulus dollars, and the Republicans wishing to block it to constrain rising employment numbers.  Neither side gives a damn about this train project's lack of benefits and the presence of stunning costs, both direct and indirect. 

Furthermore, the project has nothing to do with solving any of California's transportation or transit problems. That's just rhetoric for the dumb electorate. So, we get snookered by being dazzled with the sales language of top speeds, the low ticket costs, the number of riders, and the low construction costs.
Faster than flying, they tell us.  None of that is relevant.  It's part of the distracting magic trick.

What we are not watching, but should, is the actual cash flow, how the funding is being allocated, how the organization -- the CHSRA -- is snaking around the various legal requirements as they improvise their plans to by-pass the authorizing legislation in order to get shovels into the ground on schedule in order to remain eligible for the federal funding. Remember the adage: Follow the Money!  Make no mistake: that federal funding is what this project is actually all about.  Bringing over $3 billion into the state from Washington, and spending several billion more from the GO bond issue in the state; that's the prime objective.

So, what about the Governor?  The funds are now being "legitimized" as a jobs/work program.  It is a center-piece of Jerry Brown's governance, as is the fact that the expenditure of over $6 billion is being promised to elevate the sinking state economy.  

And that's why all the mis-management of and lying by the rail authority and its lunatic plans are irrelevant.  As it happens, Brown is wrong on both counts; the promised jobs will not materialize and the economy of the state will be increasingly burdened with this new money sink-hole. 

As we keep insisting here:  It's not about the train; it's about the money. And not in a good way.

Oakland Tribune editorial: Brown errs on California high-speed rail plan
Oakland Tribune editorial
© Copyright 2011, Bay Area News Group
Posted: 08/23/2011 04:00:00 PM PDT
Updated: 08/23/2011 06:04:00 PM PDT

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to go forward with California's high-speed rail project despite its all but certain failure. He said, "I would like to be part of the group that gets America to think big again."

That's an admirable sentiment, but if the state or nation is going to think big, it also must think smart, and there is nothing smart about the high-speed rail boondoggle.

The High-Speed Rail Authority has bungled the project from the beginning with poor management, a lack of a coherent business plan, no realistic estimates of cost, ridership or fares, no final decision on the route and even less chance of obtaining the tens of billions of dollars in private financing that is needed to complete the system.

It is difficult to fathom how Brown cannot see that a high-speed rail system in California is doomed to failure. The estimated $43 billion for the first phase of the project from the Bay Area to Anaheim is likely to be way low.

The $9 billion in bond authority approved by the voters in 2008 won't even cover a quarter of the cost, and requires matching funds that are not likely to be forthcoming.

Despite all of these problems, the rail authority is moving ahead with plans to lay 100 miles of track in the Central Valley. Even though this is the least expensive and least complicated part of the route, cost estimates already are running way higher than forecast.

Initial reports on the segment that would almost but not quite connect Merced and Bakersfield were estimated to cost $7.1 billion just for the track. Those cost estimates are now as much as $13.9 billion, and this is the easy part of the project.

It would not be surprising if the cost of the complete rail project rose north of $100 billion. No wonder the Legislative Analysts Office advised against Brown's request for $185 million to keep the project alive.

Even with large subsidies, ridership is not apt to be anywhere near what is needed to keep fares competitive with airlines, even with higher fuel prices.

It would make far more sense for California to spend transportation money on urban transit projects such as BART to San Jose than to try to build a high-speed rail system in a region that does not have the population density to support it.

If California continues to proceed with such an obvious waste of billions of taxpayer dollars, how can the state expect voters to ever pass tax increases and extensions?

Brown should have shown some leadership by dropping his request for high-speed rail funds and calling for the entire project to be canceled before any more money is wasted. It's still not too late to do the right thing and derail the boondoggle express.

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