California! No Bonds For You!
It’s going to be very hard to move to the next phase of pre-construction work on the California High Speed Rail project if there is no money to pay for more pre-construction work. It’s not so much that I expect that the funds will be paid by anything other than public bonds (unless private industry gets involved, which so far it hasn’t been). Nor am I doubtful that ultimately, the issuance of those bonds will be found “necessary and desirable” and they will go forward.
No, what really bugs me is that after having spent two-thirds of a billion dollars on pre-construction consultants (notwithstanding that not one inch of track has yet been laid eighteen years after the legislature originally created it), the California High-Speed Rail Authority couldn’t put together a report explaining to the public why those bonds, and the project they will be used for, are “necessary and desirable.” These are not difficult concepts, nor are they new to those acquainted with public construction projects in this state (or many others).
I say again, I want this project to be a success. This is the bedrock infrastructure program for the twenty-first century in this state. We need to get it right.
The Legislature created the California High Speed Rail Authority in 1996. Its original plan called for SF-LA service by 2020, with total construction costs of $25 billion. In the intervening time, virtually the only work on the project has been done by white-collar workers, mostly in a large handful of office buildings — lawyers, accountants, bond brokers, engineers, architects, cartographers, and bureaucrats of various sorts. Today, the target date is nine years later, the original advertised average speed of 220 miles per hour has been cut in half, and the anticipated price tag has risen to $68 billion. And they can’t even get the white-collar stuff right.
At what point does it become apparent that things have gone horribly, horribly awry, and that something dramatically new has to happen to change its progress? Today, there are eight billion missing reasons to think that this point has been passed. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association may be cheering, but I’m not. I’d rather see the money be spent right, on a project that’s going to work. It’s our future at stake, and it’s being expensively pissed away.
The Governor and the Legislature need to take action:
- They need to give CalRail substantial waivers and variances from compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, and similar waivers and variances from the Federal government must be actively solicited, so that additional hundreds of millions of dollars need not be spent on EIRs.
- The Governor needs to seek, and the Legislature needs to grant, authority to make more rapid changes in both the executive board and administrative leadership of the Authority. Does the recent failure in court, by itself, mean that heads need to roll? Not on its own — but there’s been plenty of other indicia that the fish is indeed rotting.
- The Authority needs to seriously contemplate dramatic re-routes of the Central Valley segments of its route along the western side of the valley along I-5, with spur lines going to serve these cities, rather than the existing eastern route following Highways 47 and 99, running through every urban center in the Central Valley, because the land along I-5 is cheaper and less-developed, and the resulting route will involve fewer stops and higher transit speeds.
- A special court should be created to determine the condemnation value of property along the final right-of-way, to streamline the condemnations when they actually happen.
- And elevation of rail lines through the urban areas should be proposed by engineers to allow dedicated, high-speed track to serve those primary draws of economic support for the eventual system, so as to allow for the promised high-speed service and enhanced safety of isolating the high-speed trains from the heavier, slower counterparts on the ground, rather than having that track shared with existing, slow-speed commuter and freight lines. Expensive? Sure, but it’s not as though the rest of the project is cheap. Do it right or don’t do it at all.
I’ve accepted that public transit on this scale will always require a public subsidy. The point is to provide infrastructure, after all. And perhaps CalRail will never be completely self-supporting with ticket fares, as would have been ideal. But it should at least work right, and do so within our lifetimes. And it would be nice if construction did not wind up costing so much that the state will be required to put the project into receivership.