Thursday, January 26, 2012

In California, High-Speed Rail comes down to the Whim and Will of Governor Jerry Brown

Here's an article from the reliably sensible Christian Science Monitor. It's very good and has been making the rounds yesterday and today among all the active HSR objectors, or "naysayers" and "deniers," as Governor Brown likes to call us.

The Governor Jerry Brown Memorial High-Speed Rail. How does that sound to you, Governor? No longer live within the looming shadow of your father's accomplishments for California.  Here's your chance to become a real boy and no longer a wooden puppet with a long nose. Once this train gets rolling at over 200 mph, won't Linda Ronstadt be proud of you!

We should have no doubts that there are deals involved in the continued support for HSR by this Governor and his offer that we can't refuse.  Nor can the Democrats in the Legislature. We'll get back to that in a moment.

Let's get rid of these stupid analogies with other, earlier infrastructure projects:

The Governor cites infrastructure projects from the past, suggests that they had critics, and claims that history has proven those critics wrong.  He shouldn't be permitted to get away with this untrue and illogical construction. 

Actually, these analogies, and President Obama trotted out his own list in the State of the Union Address,  have attributes that should make them not only inappropriate comparisons, but negative cautionary examples to be avoided in the future. Look at this earlier project. Haven't we learned anything? We better not do this again! 

Interstate Highway, Transcontinental Railroad, Boston Big Dig, Panama Canal, Suez Canal, BART, etc. The list is long and irrelevant. Each one involves highly undesirable attributes, or has dimensions, like the availability of funding, not found with California's train. Some were profitable (unlike HSR). Some had funding fully spelled out (unlike HSR). The ones that were profoundly disruptive, on the other hand, like the Chinese Three Gorges Dam, are good comparisons but weren't mentioned.

Consider the Boston Big Dig, which began as an under $2 billion project and ended up costing the taxpayers over $22 billion; all the numbers have not even now been fully calculated. Government fines were levelled at Bechtel and Parsons Brinckerhoff for their wrong-doing.  While it has indeed changed traffic patterns, there is continued debate about the cost-benefits and whether it was worthwhile. At least, the project was for everyone driving in downtown Boston, not merely a select affluent few.

Regarding the late 19th century Transcontinental Railroad, do we need the Age of Railroad Robber Barons to return with the Age of High-Speed Rail Robber Barons? These "Big Four" -- "The Associates", became bearded legends of theft and fraud.  (Crocker, Stanford, Hopkins and Huntington)

Recent books <> remind us of the corruption that accompanied this infrastructure development and the pain that was imposed on tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants; slave labor in all but name. 

Did it "open up the West?" Yes, but at that time, railroads were the technically most advanced forms of transit and reflected the Industrial Age's efforts to subdue the environment and its obstacles for the advance of business.  In short, it's a lousy comparison; context is everything. It's a comparison that warns us not to repeat it.  California, after all,  is post-industrial and no longer needs to domesticate the wild frontier with faster railroads.

Let me state all this another way.  It's only a good analogy if it includes outrageous cost over-runs, as the Boston Big Dig did, or if it involves skullduggery, theft, cheating and lying, as the Trans-continentral Railroad did. It's also a bad analogy if it is truly profitable, as the Suez Canal or the Erie Canal are or were, and HSR won't be. 

But, beyond Brown's attempts to appear "visionary," and the jobs creator, his central purpose is to salvage the state economy and he will need Union support this coming fall with tax-raising initiatives on the ballot.  The Unions, considering HSR a public works project, have a deal with Brown; support the train (for jobs) and they will help pass the tax initiatives.  Isn't that how politics is supposed to work? Regardless of the consequences?

This excellent article ends with speculation about further federal funding and whether that makes all these state political shenanigans moot.  No, because future funding is not a part of the equation of either the rail authority or the Governor. They know better than that. They have $3.5 billion as good as in the bank if they don't screw it up.  And right now, that's a lot of money and it's all that matters.


The Christian Science Monitor -
Why Jerry Brown is standing firm on shaky California high-speed rail plan

Another report critical of California's $100-billion high-speed rail project – the second this month – has not shaken Gov. Jerry Brown's faith in the plan. He has his eyes on his legacy, some say.

By Daniel B. Wood, Staff writer
posted January 25, 2012 at 7:23 pm EST
Los Angeles

A new report by the state auditor concludes that California’s proposed $98.5 billion bullet train is “increasingly risky” and has inadequate oversight, adding to a growing pile of formal assessments that raise major concerns about the project.

Three weeks ago, an independent panel required by law to review the plans said the bullet train poses “an immense financial risk.” And in November, California's independent Legislative Analyst’s Office said parts of the plan don’t comply with the 2008 ballot measure that authorized state funding for the project. 

Undeterred, Gov. Jerry Brown is pressing ahead, claiming that the train will create jobs, accommodate future population growth, and aid the environment.

In his state-of-the-state address Jan. 15, he said boldly: “During the 1930s, the Central Valley Water Project was called a 'fantastic dream' that 'will not work.' The Master Plan for the Interstate Highway System in 1939 was derided as 'New Deal jitterbug economics.' In 1966, then-Mayor Johnson of Berkeley called [the Bay Area Rapid Transit system] a 'billion dollar potential fiasco.' Similarly, the Panama Canal was for years thought to be impractical and [British Prime Minister] Benjamin Disraeli himself said of the Suez Canal: 'totally impossible to be carried out.' "

"The critics were wrong then and they’re wrong now,” he concluded.

Political analysts say Governor Brown has his eye on history, trying to be mentioned favorably alongside his father, Pat Brown, who was governor from 1959 to 1967 and whose achievements virtually define modern California.

“Governor Brown is seeking to define his legacy, and public mass transportation is one of the things in which he deeply believes,” says Michael Shires, a public policy specialist at Pepperdine University. “The creation of a high-speed rail link would allow him to leave an imprint on the state that is in the same universe as his father's legacy of water projects, universities, and highways.”  

The state auditor's report, however, spoke harshly of the plan. It notes that only $12.5 billion of the $100 billion-plus project is secured, with no indication of how the rest is to be obtained. It also claimed that the California High-Speed Rail Authority doesn't have mechanisms in place for monitoring its contractors.

Supporters of the project say the 220-m.p.h. trains will transform transportation in the state and create jobs. The move is also shrewd politically for Brown, helping him with unions, who helped elect him and whose support he needs for a tax-hike initiative this fall, analysts say. Plus, touting rail has very little downside for now.

“Particularly during a difficult recession, reminding voters of long term makes him look like a visionary,” says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

It was the Obama administration, he and others note, that last year pushed the idea of a national, high-speed rail network.

“The last thing the White House wants is to be undermined by a Democratic governor of California, so it doesn’t cost Brown anything to talk up high-speed rail,” says Mr. Schnur.

But Republicans are calling for a stop to the project, and opponents have been cleared to begin a signature-gathering drive aimed at putting an anti-rail initiative on the ballot.

“This is a train to nowhere, the Governor Moonbeam express,” says Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, invoking the pejorative nickname given to Brown in his first term by Chicago journalist Mike Royko, who thought Brown’s wild ideas were appealing only to a New Age crowd.  

She says part of the reason Brown doesn’t want to back off now is because $3.5 billion that has already been designated by the Obama administration includes funding for a project in Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s district.

She also questions the ridership and cost figures.

“They are playing lots of shenanigans, like counting one man who is a potential ticket taker for 20 years as 20 jobs,” says Ms. Harkey.

Some national observers are worried what the California episode might mean for high-speed rail elsewhere. 

“There were enough objective critics of this program back when it was first proposed that predicted we would find ourselves in this spot today,” says Peter Zaleski, an economics professor at the Villanova School of Business in Philadelphia, who follows transportation issues. “Opponents will use the current report as evidence to support the case that we never should have moved forward on this project. I fear that proponents will view this as just another hurdle and rationalize the need to push forward.”

The questions may all be moot if funding can’t be found.

“Fiscal problems are putting many spending ideas on hold in Washington and state capitals, and California high-speed rail may well join other programs on the shelf due to lack of financing,” says Steven Schier, political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “The plain fact is that high-speed rail is so expensive that it is necessary for a state to be in sound fiscal shape in order to fund it. California unfortunately is not in such shape now and won’t be anytime soon.”

“Californians have a tradition of committing funds first and thinking about who will pay later,” says Ken Button, a transportation specialist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

It may come down to a combination of what the California economy does in the next few months and Jerry Brown’s skills as a politician.

“If he pulls it off, he’ll go down as a visionary,” writes columnist Dan Walters in the Sacramento Bee. “If it fails, he'll go down as a narcissistic daydreamer."

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