Friday, February 17, 2012

The Bait-and-Switch High-Speed Rail Game in California

Let's say, that instead of this high-speed rail project, the federal government was intent on supporting urban and regional public mass transit repair, maintenance and upgrades, including rail.  Would we all have mobilized to oppose this?  Of course not. Indeed, much of this was, as the federal government called for, "shovel ready."  These transit deficiencies are highly obvious problems begging for solutions. 

Had this happened in 2009, we would have already spent much of that ARRA Stimulus funding and employed thousands of construction workers. Please note that the California HSR project is still, today, far from shovel ready, several years after the ARRA Stimulus fund legislation. So far, what they've spent half a billion dollars on is paperwork and hot air. 

Would we, on the Peninsula, object if the Caltrain commuter rail system were to electrify and convert to EMUs, without imposing any other infrastructure changes on the corridor? Probably not. (It wouldn't help their business model or operating cash flow, but those good old boys do love their new toys.) 

However, they could, if they chose, upgrade their rolling stock with double-stack DEMUs which are hybrid electric trains and require no external power source.  That would even be better and meet with even less objection. Wouldn't that be a good use of transit dollars intended to create jobs and improve the economy?

And there are dozens of other infrastructure projects that are critical to California's future, including the upgrading of our seaports, repair and upgrade the more efficient moving of our water supplies, and upgrading our power grid to a "smart grid" and being capable of power transmission from renewable energy sources to where the power markets are. 

If all that is true, then why in God's name are we so compelled to create this ridiculous extravagance of a five-star train only for the affluent?  We don't need such a train, even as we do need to improve our transit capacities in our major population centers.  

It's like having a rusty old station wagon in the driveway for our large family, which we expect to get larger, but going out to buy a two- seater Ferrari, which we can't afford and don't have money to pay for.  Wouldn't we all call that stupid?  Wouldn't Dan Richard and Governor Brown call that stupid? What don't they understand? 

There is only one explanation possible. The Governor wants, desperately, to obtain the promised $3.3 billion from the FRA and will insist on pursuing this pointless project in order to guarantee receiving these funds. No other plausible explanation can be offered.  He may even delude himself with the job-creation myth that now accompanies all government expenditures.  No matter.  The billions "are where it's at!"

Of course the project has been "bait-and-switch" from the start.  The rail authority board knew what it was doing, deceiving the voters, from the very beginning. All the numbers were cooked up out of thin air, intended for the consumption of a naive and gullible voter population. 

At what point will those $3.3 billion be perceived to not be worth it? Of what value is it to California to dig up 100 miles of rail corridor and lay some track, meanwhile tearing up homes and farms the length of that rail right of way which cannot be used by high-speed rail? Just how cynical and corrupt is our Governor and Legislature?

CA: Rail Plan Hits Bump
Created: February 17, 2012

California's high-speed rail plans have morphed into high-stakes bait-and-switch.

Voters in 2008 authorized bonds for one plan and now rail-backers, led by Gov. Jerry Brown, propose something entirely different. If that is what they want, they must return to the ballot.
There has been much discussion about lowball cost estimates, starting construction in the sparsely populated Central Valley, inflated job forecasts, misappropriation of money for public relations, overly optimistic ridership estimates, route alignments and the absence of private-sector investment.
All important issues.

But here is the most fundamental one: Voters never approved the latest plan. In 2008, they were promised a $45 billion system that, according to the ballot analysis of Proposition 1A, "connects San Francisco Transbay Terminal to Los Angeles Union Station and Anaheim, and links the state's major population centers, including Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area, the Central Valley, Los Angeles, the Inland Empire, Orange County and San Diego."

That price assumed the section between San Francisco and Anaheim would cost about $31 billion. 

Now the price of that portion has more than doubled, and cost estimates no longer include Sacramento and San Diego. Prop. 1A, approved by 53 percent of voters, would never have passed if residents of those cities knew they would be cut out.

As part of the deal, voters approved $9.95 billion in state bond funding, with the balance to come from the federal government and private investors.

Dan Richard, the governor's hand-picked High-Speed Rail Authority chairman, argues the total project cost shouldn't endanger voter approval of the state's contribution. That is ridiculous. It is one thing for voters to agree to gamble nearly $10 billion on a statewide system estimated at $45 billion. 

It is another to risk it on a project that costs more than twice as much, covers half the distance and, aside from a one-time $3.5 billion federal contribution, lacks other funding.

It is clear Brown and Richard remain hellbent on pushing ahead. Richard, who promised objectivity, has become a blind advocate. We expect they will revise the plan to address some of the legitimate questions. But it still won't meet the Prop. 1A parameters. The state can't legally issue long-term bonds without voter approval, but there has been no such OK the current plan.

Richard argues voters gave the Legislature their proxy to change the plan by requiring elected officials to sign off on the bonds. That is bogus. Voters required the Legislature to ensure bond money would be used only for the project promised in Prop. 1A.

Richard argues delays caused by another vote would endanger federal money. Key legislators from his party dispute that.

Brown and Richard understandably fear they will lose at the polls next time. Probably so. Voters have wised up and know that high-speed rail is a luxury we can't afford.

Copyright 2012 The Monterey County HeraldAll Rights Reserved

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