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January 25, 2014
Viewpoints: High-speed rail project has never made sense

High_Speed_Rail_Station.JPG(Jan. 25 - By Ben Boychuck, Special to The Bee)

If it made any sense at all - economic sense, fiscal sense, common sense - California would be an ideal place to build a high-speed rail line. The idea of cruising at 200 mph from Los Angeles through the vast, treeless expanse of the Central Valley to San Francisco certainly has a romantic and futuristic appeal. And those conceptual drawings look really slick.

But high-speed rail doesn't make sense here, if it ever did, except perhaps as the product of political calculation. The official price tag of $68 billion is flatly unbelievable. A 2012 study by California Common Sense, a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit, suggested the final cost could top $203 billion after accounting for inflation, delays and other "financing realities." The business plans - there have been several, with a new one due this year - rely on assumptions about ridership, for example, that assume Californians will abandon their cars by the tens of thousands.

This is the stuff of fantasy, of utopian speculation, with Gov. Jerry Brown sounding the most fantastically utopian of all. He simply won't give up his vain train. Brown's 2014 budget proposes using $250 million from the state's cap-and-trade fund for rail constructions.

Recall what legislative analyst and professional killjoy Mac Taylor said when Brown first floated this cap-and-trade funding idea in 2012. Noting that high-speed rail construction will generate tons of carbon, Taylor pointed out, "It's a little hard for us to justify how you can use huge sums of money to pay the large capital costs when (cutting emissions is) a relatively small reason of why you're doing it."

Cap-and-trade is another idea that promises more than it can deliver. Under California's Global Warming Solutions Act, the carbon allowance revenues are supposed to pay for programs that will cut greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. But if the train won't leave the station before 2029 at the soonest, how does shoveling hundreds of millions - or billions - of cap-and-trade money at this boondoggle advance the goals of the law?

Gosh, you might begin to wonder if cap-and-trade and high-speed rail were ever about the environment or infrastructure, and really only about money and power.

A story in The Bee this month suggested the governor's proposal "could provide a significant lift to a $68 billion rail project beleaguered by uncertainty about long-term financing."

Like most journalists, if I knew anything about math, I wouldn't have gone into newspaper work. But I can say with 126.5 percent confidence that a $250 million infusion of cap-and-trade cash is "significant" only if you assume somebody, somewhere, has another $17 billion or so at the ready to finance the first phase of the project.

Don't forget, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny ruled in November that the High Speed Rail Authority violated a key provision of Proposition 1A requiring the state to identify how it will pay for the first segment of the line, from Merced south to the San Fernando Valley. It's supposed to cost $31 billion - again, if you believe the HSRA's unbelievable figures. The state only has about $13.5 billion lined up. A lousy $250 million from cap-and-trade doesn't go very far to comply with the law's funding demands.

Brown infamously dismissed critics of his high-speed folly as "declinists" and "dystopians." One needn't be a "declinist" to wonder whether pouring hundreds of billions into a new train is prudent when the state's existing roads, highways and bridges are a potholed catastrophe.

Brown mentioned in passing Wednesday the $65 billion "needed to maintain and keep our roads, buildings and other infrastructure in sound repair." The California Transportation Commission identifies some $341 billion in road and bridge repair work over the next decade. Yet the state earmarked just $7.6 billion to infrastructure work last year.

The average Golden State commuter can expect to pay $800 a year on automobile maintenance thanks to the state's shoddy roads. Nevertheless, Brown is hustling to raise billions for a train that nobody outside of the construction unions, High Speed Rail Authority bureaucrats and a small but loud cult of ferroequinologists seems to want.

I'm not a declinist and I don't relish the thought of a "dystopian" California. After all, I have kids. It would be nice for them to come of age in a prosperous Golden State. Why should they have to settle for a carless life in a Fresno condo, with a 90-minute train commute to Los Angeles or the Bay Area?

The thought may please urban planners and environmentalists, but it should depress a free and enterprising people - the sort of people Californians used to be and many of us hope to remain.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Reach him at bboychuk@city-journal.org.