Monday, March 12, 2012

Is High-Speed Rail a "toy train" or political pork? Answer: Both.

This article sums it up pretty well.  However, I do want to differ with Mr. Hannaford about Jerry Brown. I will grant Hannaford's perception that the Governor's pursuit of this project is to acquire the legacy status achieved by his governor father.

But, the real aspiration for Brown is fixing the state's structurally deficient budget without being able to raise taxes.  That makes the lust for those free federal dollars Brown's highest priority. And what does he have to do to obtain those $3.3 billion from the FRA? Why start construction of the HSR project in the Central Valley in 2013, of course.  

That doesn't mean he has to complete it.  That probably won't happen in his life-time. The DOT will authorize the expenditure of those dollars with the stipulation that whatever the rail authority intends to build is to be completed by 2017.  

That logic defies logic.  By that I mean the rail authority will build as much as they can -- and whatever they build will be incomplete, not HSR capable -- and call that their intended first step, their "Initial Construction Section." 

Is that clear?  It's not like, in order to be eligible for funding in 2017, they have to complete 130 miles of high-speed train track. They don't even intend to build tracks that can support high-speed rail.  It won't have electrification, signalling, PTC or rolling stock.  It will simply be a two-track corridor, useless for freight and undesired by Amtrak. It's entire purpose is to obtain and burn through the available free $3.3 billion federal dollars. 

And, unless the federal Administration in 2017 says absolutely not, they will certainly get their promised $3.3 billion. Another condition is that it has to be matched with state funds. And it will. They also intend to spend $2.7 billion of the borrowed state bond funds. 

What this means, pure and simple, is that it's not only, or even primarily about Jerry Brown's "toy train" as Peter Hannaford has it. It's about Jerry Brown pursuing a project that will never be built, in order to get a bunch of free money into a cash-starved state. 

Yes, the governor was involved, decades ago, in the concoction of the high-speed rail concept for California, along with a bunch of other back-room politicians.  It was intended as a major grab for political pork and in 2008 the current Obama Administration came in to salvage this concept and vision with a high-speed rail program for the entire United States. Without this program, HSR in California would have died on the vine.

Now, we're stuck with the damn thing and having a devil of a time getting rid of it, like a persistent disease that is immune to the usual anti-bacterial drugs. I, for one, strongly advise surgery!
Jerry Brown's Toy Train

By Peter Hannaford on 3.12.12 @ 6:07AM

California's aging governor still believes in the taxpayer as Santa Claus.
When he was a boy, Jerry Brown must have asked Santa Claus for a toy train set but not gotten one. How else can one explain the California governor's obsession with building a "high-speed" train other than it being compensation for an unmet childhood desire?

Initially, the train in question would run between two towns in the state's San Joaquin Valley, the southern half of its huge Central Valley. It is supposed to be the first section of a 520-mile network that would connect that big metropolitan centers of Northern and Southern California. 

In 2008, California voters, seduced by union-funded advertising, voted for a $9 billion bond issue as "seed money" to begin the system. Brown wants to use the first $2.7 billion of this to get construction under way. The Obama Administration has promised a $3.5 billion carrot for California along with a "stick" in the form of a demand to get construction of the toy train underway this year.

Since 2008 the cost of the network between the San Francisco Bay Area and Orange County has been put at between $98 billion and $117 billion. The completion date has gone from 2020 to as late as 2033. This phase of the network does not include either San Diego or Sacramento. The bipartisan Legislative Analyst's Office estimates service of the bond issues for this phase will amount to $700 million a year in a state that perpetually faces large annual deficits and cuts such things as rural school buses and in-home service for low-income seniors to deal with the problem.

To put it mildly, enthusiasm for the "bullet train" scheme has dimmed since 2008. A recent Field Poll found that by two-to-one, California voters would turn it down if it were on this year's ballot.

The non-partisan California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group reported early this year that the project is "not financially feasible" and urged the legislature to decline the governor's request for the $2.7 billion toy train bond money. Brown calls anyone who opposes him a "declinist."

Last year the governors of Florida and Ohio declined to accept federal handouts for similar "high-speed" train systems in their states. This did not dent the determination of the Obama Administration. It responded by offering the declined money to other states eager to get it. California was one of these; hence the federal "free" money offer to get the project going.

Jerry Brown is now California's oldest governor. The first time around, he was its youngest. Nowadays he thinks about a "legacy." He probably thinks of the "legacy" of his late father, Governor "Pat" Brown, in boom times: an excellent highway network, expanded higher education system, and a comprehensive statewide water system. To match all that he needs something BIG. The "high-speed" railway seems to be it. Despite ample warnings by disinterested parties that it will not draw the expected ridership, will have huge cost overruns, take much longer to build than expected, and will saddle the state with large operating costs, Brown is determined to plunge ahead.

Will the state legislature approve the bond sale this year? That's uncertain, but here's a clue: both houses are dominated by Democrats. Many of them are beholden to public employee unions that like the high-speed rail plan. And, Brown is a Democrat.

About the Author
Peter Hannaford was Assistant to the Governor and Director of Public Affairs for Ronald Reagan when he was Governor of California. His latest book is Reagan's Roots: The People and Places That Shaped His Character.

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