Sunday, January 8, 2012

Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee calling high-speed rail for what it really is.

This blog has shown extended respect and admiration for Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee for a very long time, and we are not going to stop now.  His latest, from yesterday, lays the current situation out briefly and clearly, like a cadaver on an autopsy table.

Walters points out that the criticism of this project does not merely emanate from a handful of cranky complainers who don't know very much (such as me). 

Now it comes from a carefully selected Peer Review Group of professionals, headed by Will Kempton, former director of  Caltrans, which is the functioning Transportation Department for California.  A consummate politician, he does not level criticism lightly.  

The Peer Review Group, as we all know by now, has stated that the rail project for California should be terminated.  The project has far from anything like the required funding, future funding is unlikely, and the plans, both business and financial, are totally inadequate to develop an over $100 billion project, the largest in US history. 

In case it's forgotten, there have been a litany of reports from various state government agencies who all agree about the severe shortcomings of this project and its unsuitability.  Among the earliest, from the summer of 2008 (before the Proposition 1A election and passage) was Alan Lowenthal's committee report on the many inadequacies of the CHSRA documentation.

This report was followed by similar analyses from the Legislative Analysts' Office, the then Inspector General, the State Auditor, even from a study conducted by Prof. Dan Levinson from the Berkeley Institute for Transportation Studies. A more recent studies indicated the fallacious ridership numbers proffered by the rail authority.  And now, the coup de grace, the recent Peer Review Group's highly damning report.

Wouldn't you think that politicians of all stripes would take that accumulated documentation from non-political sources about a disastrous project seriously?  Apparently not.  That the CHSRA lashed back at their own peer group is not surprising. And they did so in highly unprofessional ad hominem language; like an exposed white-collar criminal at an investigation.  But the Governor also, against all evidence to the contrary, chose to condemn the group producing the report.

The first thing this proves is that the supporters of this project see it for what it really is, a funding transfer from Washington to the California budget. I'm now discounting the religious worship of HSR from some of the blogsters, since there is no reality behind their advocacy whatsoever.

It also demonstrates, given the deplorable condition of the California infrastructure -- transportation and otherwise -- that this project is not about fixing anything that needs fixing, despite the hyped rhetoric and vague promises. Regardless of all the talk about the future and how HSR would be the solution to all the problems in the future, the fact is that the future is being very much neglected (Infrastructure, Education, etc.) by our elected officials, particularly the Governor, in order to get and spend the currently available six billion dollars, even if nothing useful comes of it.

It is not impossible to consider that this kind of confrontation politics for political gain will come to haunt the Democrats as they enter the coming election cycle.  We should do everything we can to make this such a political issue.

And we certainly concur with Dan Walters' conclusion!

It's time to kill bullet train boondoggle
By Dan Walters
The Sacramento Bee
Saturday, Jan. 07, 2012 | 08:04 PM

It's one thing for politicians, ordinary citizens, lawyers or even media pundits to say that California's bullet train project is fatally flawed and should be scrapped before it becomes a hopeless money pit.

Bullet train zealots dismiss those naysayers as uninformed or biased, and even reject milder criticism from the Legislature's budget analyst.

But when the California High-Speed Rail Authority's own "peer review" committee of transportation experts says the project should be put on hold, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature should pay heed. And that's exactly what happened last week.

The peer reviewers, headed by ex-Caltrans director Will Kempton, told the Legislature that while revised plans are an improvement, they still don't adequately describe how the north-south system could reasonably be built and operated.

It concluded, "We cannot overemphasize the fact that moving ahead on the HSR project without credible sources of adequate funding, without a definitive business model, without a strategy to maximize the independent utility and value to the state, and without the appropriate management resources represents an immense financial risk on the part of the state."

Tom Umberg, a former assemblyman who chairs the CHSRA, denounced the report -- which proves that agency members have lost all sense of objectivity and responsibility.

Specifically, the CHSRA wants the Legislature to appropriate $2.7 billion in state bonds to match $3.5 billion in federal funds so that an initial section of the system can be built.

But as the peer reviewers point out, even if the section could be built for $6.2 billion -- which they say is unproven -- its utility is uncertain and it may be illegal because it's not an electrified railway as mandated.

In reaching that conclusion, the peer review panel bolsters contentions of Kings County, which has filed suit to stop it.

Brown appointed two new members of the authority -- Dan Richard and Mike Rossi -- to overhaul its plans and keep the project alive. They made some improvements, as the peer review report concedes. But the revised "business plan" is still full of holes.

Supposedly, the state would lose the federal funds if work on the San Joaquin Valley section doesn't begin later this year. 

That allocation is only a droplet in the $100 billion construction.

"This is the time for big ideas," Brown said Thursday, reiterating his support for the bullet train and revealing plans to fold the CHSRA into a new superagency.

But this is looking more and more like a big boondoggle. It's time to pull the plug.

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