Saturday, March 3, 2012

Attention High-Speed Rail Shenanigans Watchers: Status Report

Here's a quick status report for what's going on with high-speed rail in California.  We are all waiting, expectantly, for the next and "final" business plan to be issued by the rail authority.  In it will be some unwelcome suprises which aren't surprises any more.

As you may recall, the DOT in Washington awarded the CHSRA around $3.3 billion from the ARRA Stimulus funds to start HSR construction in the Central Valley.  The CHSRA agreed to this in order to receive these funds.  The fact is that the CHSRA would have preferred to start in the two population centers, where most of the potential HSR customers live and work.  But, the game here is "follow the money."

So, that's the way it has been up to now. The Governor has enthusiastically pursued this project and Sect. of Transportation Ray LaHood has made it one of his highest priorities.  

However, the game has recently changed.  It has become apparent to even the most ardent HSR supporter that those naughty Republicans are really reluctant to pour well over $100 billion of the taxpayers' dollars into the largest boondoggle ever conceived in the USA.  The House as well as the Senate version of the next Transportation Budget have zeroed out any high-speed rail funding for the future.

That means there is a very, very small likelihood of more government funds beyond the $3.3 already obligated. Now realizing this, there has emerged a wild-eyed scramble among local politicians in both population centers, the Bay Area and the LA Basin, mostly led by the local transportation agencies, to get their hands on some of the funds that are actually available, including several billion from the state bond funds earmarked for HSR.

It's not only that putting all those funds into the Central Valley for a "train to nowhere" is not a great idea, but if this is all the money there's ever going to be, now is the time to grab it. 

As it turns out, the Governor, and therefore his high-speed rail gun-slinger-side-kick, Dan Richard, endorse this broader distribution of available funds, all in the name of high-speed rail, of course.  

Governor Jerry Brown argues that, despite the rail authority's issuance of the cost projection of $117 billion for the SF to LA route, that it would certainly not cost that much. Oh, no. It would be far less because the Governor, the world's leading HSR expert, believes that using existing rail corridors will save tons of money; that is, they can have the vision of high-speed rail on the cheap, or, at least, cheaper. 

This raises far more questions than have been answered.  These regional transportation agencies, with the endorsement of the State's two Senators and a variety of the State's Congresspersons, are seeking to convince the DOT that putting all their dollar eggs into the Central Valley basket is not that great an idea. Instead, spreading those dollars around to the population centers, where most of the state's voters live, especially the Democratic ones, will serve high-speed rail's purposes far better.

So, the money will now go to upgrade local rail transit systems, such as Caltrain in the Bay Area, and Metrolink in the LA Basin. But, it won't be enough to merely take some from the already spoken for $3.3, or the several billion from the state bond funds.  They will need more, much more. 

So, we are now hearing that the intention is to dip further into the $9 billion general obligation bond funds, whether they are to be matched (as legally required) or not.  

If this project had a bad odor of legal violations in the past, it will now really stink if this money grab goes through. The much anticipated business plan should explain all this in detail.  We await with baited breath. Draft lawsuits are being prepared even as we speak.

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