The solution almost nobody in California asked for to a problem almost nobody in California thought we had is running up a bill almost nobody in California wants to pay.
As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the financially distressed state is facing an annual debt of over $700 million per year simply trying to borrow the money state officials want to begin construction of even the first phase of the controversial high-speed rail program, one of the first in the nation touted by President Barack Obama as part of his green initiatives for the country. As with virtually every cost estimate connected with this boondoggle, that cost is far above the $600 million plus estimate associated with the original 2008 bond issue.
That figure includes principal and interest on the more than $9 billion in high-speed rail bonds CA voters approved in the Democratic rout of the 2008 election. The program, which has skyrocketed to over $98.5 billion from its initial estimate of some $40 billion for the first phase alone, has yet to begin any material construction, acquisition or even lay down a finally-determined route. That investment is expected to provide high-speed rail access between Anaheim and San Francisco. Further devlopment of the project to service Sacramento and San Diego, has not yet begun. Not even a rough estimate of the final cost has been provided, but based on the estimates for Phase 1, a final cost in the area of $400 billion or higher is not an unreasonable expectation.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority proposes to use $2.7 billon of that bond money and another $3.3 billion in Federal grants to lay down a 130-mile stretch of track in California’s Central Valley, a seemingly inexplicable decision in the face of the economic ruin imposed on the agricultural region by Federally-imposed water use restrictions. High-speed rail was never intended as a freight hauler, and with the Central Valley blighted by a (literal) bureaucratic drought, there is no freight to be hauled. It will basically be a track from one side of a dust bowl to the other, with no large population concentrations on either end in need of rail commutation services. It has been suggested that the location was chosen precisely because of its poor economic condition and scant population, to minimize the inevitable rash of lawsuits and regulatory challenges that will follow as the state tries to plot a viable route for the line through the populous and and litigious coastal regions, in the hope that having such a large amount of unrecoverable capital already invested will convince a reluctant electorate to continue with the project.
Indeed, the entire CA high-speed rail effort seems to be a system without a mission. Unlike the East Coast, where major cities sit in close proximity in a narrow coastal region, there are actually few major urban concentrations in California, widely spaced. Cities such as San Francisco and San Diego, as Conservatory editor Joy McCann has pointed out, have reputations and influence far in excess of their actual size. And running a rail line between them will involve a byzantine turf war between city, county, state, federal and even military land-use interests, environment conflicts, eminent domain wars, etc.
Another high-speed rail program has already proved to be a major failure, as China’s widely-touted high-speed rail system has been ordered to run at conventional speeds by the Chinese government after a series of disastrous accidents. Subsequent investigation revealed widespread graft and corruption in the program that led to numerous trials and even several executions, an outcome sadly unlikely in Sacramento.
Although Governor Brown insists he still supports high-speed rail, there is growing public opposition to what many feel is a white elephant they were sold under false pretenses.
State Sen. Doug LaMalfa (R., Richvale) has called for a new public referendum on the project, although his initiative in conjunction with former Central Valley congressman George Radanovich to seek a new public vote on the project is being stalled by the California secretary of state’s office. LaMalfa also has introduced a separate bill in the Senate to stop the project, but there is little hope the state’s Democratic majorities in the Assembly will willingly let go of such an opportunity for graft. A second ballot initiative, was approved by the secretary of state in January. That measure is called the “No Train Please Act,” authored by Peter Seidel of Beverly Hills. The ballot initiatives require over 800,000 signatures to get on the ballot in November, by June 21. California voters have indicated in various polls that they would, by between 59% and two-thirds, want to vote again on the rail initiative.
State Treasurer Bill Lockyer is no fan of the program, whose elimination would save the insolvent state over $700 million a year. His office issued a statement saying there are”substantial unanswered questions about the project’s funding, and until those questions are adequately answered, it’s premature to take the plunge” of moving forward, a spokesman said.
California Secretary of State: http://tinyurl.com/83s7prg
State Senator Doug LaMalfa: http://tinyurl.com/833w6r3