Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The realities behind Governor Brown's high-speed rail recalcitrance

The point in this article is that while there is rapidly declining support for high-speed rail everywhere except in the White House (with the DOT as loudspeakers), and the Governor's Mansion in Sacramento, the attraction for the state's governor is the $3.5 billion ARRA Stimulus fund package awarded to California.

As California Senator Dianne Feinstein puts it so eloquently, approve this project or lose the funding. Governor Brown knows that all too well. And, as we've said in earlier blog entries, it's not the train that Brown cares so much about; it's the money.

What it comes down to is a federal bribe.  The White House/DOT is confronting the losing of the high-speed rail vision that has been so important to them and has lost so much ground over the past two years.  Obama/LaHood are willing now to ransom that vision by continuing to dangle the $3.5 billion in front of Jerry Brown's nose. That's why I believe that even if there was an actual firm start date, the DOT would be happy to let it slip a little.

The Governor doesn't actually have to build a whole operating electric train for Christmas.  The DOT and Brown know that.  All he has to do is follow through with the initial construction that would burn through those dollars, even if no more dollars will be available beyond this initial seed grant. 

It's a way of saving face. The Administration gets to point to California -- especially during this critical election year -- as the place where the vision will take root by "winning the future."  (It doesn't have to mean anything; just sound good as a sound-bite.)  Having been rejected by three Republican Governors, and actually having little to show for it anywhere else, California becomes the last great hope to salvage the vision. 

It is ironic that most of the states outside of Florida and California didn't even have any HSR plans on their drawing boards. In most cases, except perhaps for the Northeast Corridor, it wasn't even a twinkle in the eye. However, the ARRA Stimulus package was the knock on the door of opportunity.  Attaching another $8 billion was a no-brainer. The only real high-speed was getting those dollars committed.

No wonder that both Florida and California, with high-speed rail fairy-dust already fluttering around in their respective state capitols, were awarded such generous portions of the $8 billion.  All the rest was spread among a number of other states for Amtrak upgrades that met the entry-level criterion of 110 mph goals for their passenger rail improvements. Oh, and Illinois, the home state of so many Washington insiders, including the President, was generously awarded for it's promise of 110 mph for some of the Amtrak routes.

When Governor Scott of Florida turned down the federal award for a 186 mph train to run on 90 miles of track, lightning struck Washington. As punishment, Secretary LaHood took away those funds from Florida, over $2 billion of them, and distributed them around to other states, including California, the last hope for a true high-speed rail project.

The ARRA stimulus funds were intended to create jobs in a big hurry. Remember those "shovel-ready" projects? There were none. The California project was at least two years, today a little less than one year, away from initial construction.  

We reprise this story to make it clear why the California Governor is so determined to swim up a waterfall. The state's finances are a shambles.  A three and a half billion dollar gift is like winning the lottery, and all the Governor has to do is get the Legislature to release enough funding to get construction started -- somewhere -- and be able to call it "high-speed rail."

That's why Brown can hold a gun to the state's head.  He will cut education. . . .close all the schools if he has to . . . . . to get voters to agree to additional tax revenues flowing into the treasury.  And at the same time, at very little cost to the state for the time being, he gets billions he would not otherwise be able to obtain, by starting a construction project, preferably, outside the major cities.

Make no mistake. Starting this project will be a huge feather in Governor Brown's cap. Who cares what happens when the funds run out? He's a lame-duck Governor.

High-Speed Rail in a Coma
By Fawn Johnson
Correspondent, National Journal

Policymakers' appetite for high-speed rail seems to be dwindling to almost nothing. It is old news that congressional Republicans are not fans of President Obama's high-speed rail initiative. They view it as a waste of taxpayer dollars at a time when belt-tightening is of the highest order. The national conversation has not advanced much beyond that point, perhaps because the biggest fans of high-speed rail are distracted by other problems. Democrats in Congress raised only a faint protest when the fiscal 2012 appropriations bill cut funding for the Transportation Department's high-speed rail program. Republicans who ostensibly like high-speed rail said the cuts will allow rail enthusiasts to start over from scratch.

The problems continue at the state level, particularly in California. The California High Speed Rail Peer Review Group recently refused to recommend that bond money be devoted to the state's high-speed rail plan. The review group said the state's business plan lacked "credible sources of adequate funding" that posed "an immense financial risk" to California. Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown proposed folding the California High-Speed Rail Authority into a broader transportation agency to save money. That move could potentially take some steam out of the state's high-speed rail initiatives as they get lumped in with other transportation priorities. Even so, more than $3.5 billion in federal funding could be at risk if the state Legislature doesn't approve funds for a high-speed rail line, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

High-speed rail investments aren't like economic stimulus programs, which are intended to jump start shovel-ready projects that can immediately inject money into a local economy while delivering jobs and paved roads. The initial costs of developing high-speed rail lines are high, and the yield time is years or decades. Is the country ready for long-term investments like that? Or would it make sense to take a break and allow the economy to recover before proposing big new rail projects? What would make policymakers more receptive to high-speed rail? What critiques of high-speed rail are the most in need of a response?

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