Wednesday, February 15, 2012

High-Speed Rail and how the California voters got screwed.

In 2008, California voters passed legislation that created the high-speed rail program. The stipulated conditions included a total state cost (by way of bonds) of no more than $9.95 billion. A total cost of $43 billion. A trip duration time of 2:40.  A promise of 117 million annual riders, a ticket cost of $55. and profitability for the operation of the train.  The project would be completed by 2020.

None of those things turned out to be true and therefore what the current project is all about is not what the voters voted for.  

Should the project go ahead anyhow? Was that original vote in 2008 a blank check and a rubber stamp for the rail authority and the Governor to do whatever they pleased, have it cost hundreds of billions of dollars, lose money when it operates instead of creating surplus revenues, carry far fewer people than promised, go far slower and cost more to ride, delay completion until 2033, and in every other way no longer become what the voters supported? Is that what the voters voted for?

What most people were either ignorant of or indifferent to, has become a headline issue. People are now informed and no longer indifferent.  They know that what is actually happening is a shameless effort to obtain promised federal funds and spend them. High-speed rail has nothing to do with it.

What they intend to do with the available $6 billion is put down around 100 miles of track in the Central Valley. It won't be high-speed rail usable.  They claim that this is merely the first step for constructing the entire 400 miles first phase of the train from SF to LA.  While everyone knows it, there is no acknowledgement of the hundred billion dollar costs and the absence of the funds to build those 400 miles of high-speed rail compatible track.  

Sorry, California voters. You voted for X, but now we are going to do Y. If you don't like it, sue us. It's called bait-and-switch. In most of this country, it's a crime. Apparently, not so in Sacramento. 

Indeed, while they still acknowledge that the Central Valley is the starting place (because the DOT and FRA demand it), there is now a lot of talk about back-room negotiations with rail people and politicians about spending some of that available funding closer to the two big cities.  The San Francisco crowd wants funds for Caltrain electrification, and the Metrolink people in LA want other stuff.  

What's that about? The fear and recognition that the existing $6 billion is all that's going to be available.  So, now there is demand and pressure to get some of those dollars spent in the two population centers where the voters are.  

Will this create the HSR system? No, of course not.  It is intended to "improve" Caltrain and Metrolink.  At least, that is their claim. And, that way they will be more ready for high-speed rail construction when more dollars are made available.  Be skeptical; be very skeptical. 

There is nothing honorable, honest or transparent about all these shenanigans. It's all back-room negotiations.  It's an attempt to divide up the pork since there won't be any more after this. 

As we all know, federal dollars are the grease that lubricates political action and claims for success.  We know this story because we always hear of Senator This and Congresswoman That announcing new funding for building a new and much needed widget in their state or district. Oh, and don't forget; there are all those jobs that will follow this money. 

Should California's high-speed rail project re-appear on the ballot? 

How can you have any doubts?

Oakland Tribune editorial: Voters must get another chance at high-speed rail
Oakland Tribune editorial 
© Copyright 2011, Bay Area News Group
Posted:   02/14/2012 04:00:00 PM PST
Updated:   02/14/2012 06:08:21 PM PST

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's 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 any private-sector investment.

All important issues.

But here's 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 have never passed if residents of those cities had known they would be cut out.

As part of the deal, voters approved $9.95 billion state bond funding, with the balance to come from the federal government and private investors. As a backstop, the measure requires that legislators give final approval to the bonds.

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

It's clear that 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 for the current plan.

Richard argues that voters gave the Legislature their proxy to change the plan by requiring that elected officials sign off on the bonds. That's bogus.

Voters required the Legislature to ensure bond money would be used only for the project promised in Prop. 1A.
Richard also argues delays caused by another vote would endanger the federal money. Key legislators from his own 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.

By riding roughshod over voters in his quest for high-speed rail, Brown endangers support for his tax measure in November. During his gubernatorial campaign, he promised no tax increases without voter approval. Now, on high-speed rail bonds, the voters don't matter.

No comments: