Jerry Brown’s Rail Fantasy Keeps Getting Pricier

High Speed Rail Fresno“That’s bulls**t,” Gov. Jerry Brown told a group of union leaders in Sacramento this week as he addressed the latest bad news about his pet project to build a bullet train connecting San Francisco with Los Angeles. The union folks probably loved the tirade, given that the proposed rail system is more of a make-work project for union members than a transportation system. But the governor’s promise that the state can build the railway if “we don’t let these small-minded people intimidate us into lowering our expectations” rang a bit hollow.

Brown said he is “so tired of all the nonsense that I read in the paper and you hear from other politicians.” But the latest nonsense comes from his own High-Speed Rail Authority, which released its latest business plan. The project already is over budget and behind schedule. The new plan bumps the predicted costs from $63 billion to $77 billion — and delays the opening date by four years, to 2033.

Those costs will surely grow even more given that the current overruns are taking place on the flat, easy-to-build section of the system through the Central Valley. Just wait until the real engineering challenge is confronted, as rail planners figure out how to take the train through the Tehachapi Mountains separating the valley from Southern California.

Look at other major California infrastructure projects for an idea of realistic cost overruns. Rebuilding the eastern span of the Bay Bridge, following the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, was 2,500 percent (that’s not a typo) over the original estimate and wasn’t completed until 2013.

Apparently, it’s “small minded” for Californians — including one of the authors of the 2008 statewide initiative that secured $9.95 billion in funding for the train project — to question the overruns, delays, and failure of the latest plan to live up to the promises made to voters. That author, former Sen. Quentin Kopp, remains an advocate of high-speed rail in concept, but he calls the current alignment “foolish” and said “it is almost a crime to sell bonds and encumber the taxpayers of California at a time when this is no longer high-speed rail.”

Kopp is right. To make it feasible, rail boosters created a route alignment that shares tracks with commuter trains (the blended route) on the peninsula south of San Francisco and in the Los Angeles area. It’s highly unlikely that it will connect the state’s two megalopolises anywhere near the promised time of 2 hours and 40 minutes given how slow the trains will go in these areas.

It’s magical thinking to expect the project to do that as 2008’s Proposition 1A promised – with no operating subsidies and at an affordable price funded by private investment. Investors have run for the hills and the subsidies are a given. And why is this project even needed? I just took a Southwest Airlines flight from Sacramento to Los Angeles for under $100 roundtrip (on a special deal, which you can regularly find) with a flying time of a little more than an hour. It’s not as if Californians have no options to travel up and down the state.

The project has been unable to tap federal funds now that the Obama administration, which supported the project, is history. The initial bond funding is a pittance of the project’s estimated total cost. The auctions of cap-and-trade credits are another funding source, but even the Democratic-controlled Legislature is reluctant to open up those spigots given its other priorities.

But Brown has a plan: “I’ll tell you how we’re going to fund the railroad. We’re going to take back the Congress and then a Democratic Congress is going to put the high-speed rail in the infrastructure bill and then we’ll get that trillion dollars and we’ll put America back to work.” That’s far from a certainty — and it’s a bizarre way to plan for a major investment. Let’s just start building and hope that the political winds change and a new Congress will dole out the money. OK, I guess.

That approach is reminiscent of the one detailed by flamboyant former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. In a July 2013 San Francisco Chronicle column addressing $300 million in cost overruns for the city’s Transbay Terminal, he argued, “If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

The bullet-train project epitomizes such public-sector cynicism. Proposition 1A offered myriad detailed promises to woo skeptical voters. A superior court initially halted the sale of the bond funds to begin digging the hole, so to speak, because the authority wasn’t following requirements that it identify enough cash to complete the first 300-mile segment. Unfortunately, a higher court ultimately gave the project the go-ahead. That shouldn’t be a shock to Spectator readers, who are used to hearing the absurd promises made by politicians. But voter initiatives are written laws, not suggestions.

In recent months, the governor’s other large infrastructure boondoggle has also run into trouble. Brown wants to build two giant 35-mile tunnels underneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to bring water from the relatively rainy north to arid Southern California. It’s a way to keep water flowing even when the state shuts the pumps to protect the endangered Delta smelt.

“The $17-billion bill for the twin-tunnel version was supposed to be paid by the San Joaquin Valley agricultural districts and Southland urban agencies,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “But the farm districts have for the most part declined to open their wallets, saying the water is too expensive for them.” Not all of the urban agencies are all that excited about paying for it, either.

These projects are unfathomable given that Brown last year insisted that Californians raise gas taxes — or else their roads and bridges will continue to crumble. As Brown leaves the public stage after decades of elected office, he is reduced to hurling insults at Californians who make perfectly reasonable criticisms of costly projects that divert money from far more pressing priorities. In my view, that’s very definition of small-minded BS.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

This article was originally published by the American Spectator

New Bullet Train Woes Cause Fresh Headaches for Democrat Gubernatorial Candidates

High speed rail constructionThe March 9 release of the first updated business plan in two years for the state’s high-speed rail project could sharply intensify the pressure on Democratic gubernatorial candidates who back the project to explain their support.

The Republican candidates – Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach and Rancho Santa Fe businessman John Cox – reflect the GOP consensus that the project is a boondoggle that’s unlikely to ever be completed. But the major Democratic hopefuls – Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, state Treasurer John Chiang and former Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin – have all indicated they would continue with rail project, albeit with little of the enthusiasm shown by present Gov. Jerry Brown.

While the new business plan was depicted by the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s new CEO, Brian Kelly, as a constructive step toward salvaging the project, the plan’s key details were daunting:

The estimated cost of the project, which has yo-yoed from $34 billion to $98 billion to $64 billion, changed once again. The business plan abandoned the previous $64 billion estimate for an estimate of $77 billion – accompanied by a warning that the cost could go as high as $98 billion.

Even at the lower price tag, the state didn’t have adequate funds to complete a first $20 billion-plus bullet-train segment linking populated areas. The present plan for a Central Valley route has an eastern terminus in a remote agricultural fieldnorth of Shafter. That’s because the $9.95 billion in bond seed money that state voters provided in 2008 has only been buttressed to a relatively slight degree by additional public dollars from cap-and-trade pollution permits.

The business plan cites the possibility of additional federal funds beyond the $3.3 billion allocated by Washington early in the Obama administration. It doesn’t note, however, that domestic discretionary spending has plunged in recent years amid congressional concern about the national debt blowing past $20 trillion.

The business plan also promotes the possibility of outside investors. It doesn’t mention that such investors have passed on the project for years because state law bars the California High-Speed Rail Authority from offering them a revenue or ridership guarantee.

From 5 years behind schedule to 10 years behind

The initial operation of a bullet-train link serving California residents went from five years behind schedule, in the estimate of the Los Angeles Times, to 10 years behind schedule. The business plan said the project would begin operations no sooner than 2029.

The potential immense cost overrun of the bullet train segment in the mountains north of Los Angeles was fully acknowledged for the first time. A 2015 Times story laid out the “monumental” challenge.

Democratic candidates to succeed Brown have chosen to focus on housing, single-payer health care, immigration and criticism of President Donald Trump in most early forums and campaign appearances. But front-runners Newsom and Villaraigosa in particular seem likely to be pressed on how they can square their claims to be experienced, tough-minded managers with support for a project which seems less likely to be completed with every passing year.

Proposition 70 on the June primary ballot also will keep the bullet train on the campaign’s front burner, to some extent. It was placed on the ballot as part of a 2017 deal cut by the governor to extend the state’s cap-and-trade program until 2030. If Proposition 70 passed, it would require a one-off vote in 2024 in which cap-and-trade proceeds could only be used for specific needs with two-thirds support of each house of the Legislature. Republicans may be able to use these votes to shut off the last ongoing source of new revenue for the high-speed rail project.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

California bullet train plan to show higher cost, timeline

California’s bullet train project will likely require more time and money to complete than last estimated, but its new chief executive is promising more transparency with the public about its challenges.

“It’s going to be bumpy,” said Brian Kelly, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. “What’s important to me is you hear that from us.”

The rail authority on Friday will release its latest business plan, a biennial snapshot of building timelines, cost estimates and other critical details about the ambitious plan to transport people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in under three hours.

It will be the first plan since Kelly took over the project in February after leading the state’s transportation agency and comes on the heels of a nearly $3 billion cost increase on a segment of track underway in the Central Valley and repeated delays.

The last plan put the estimated cost at $64 billion, with a train running between the two major cities by 2029. …

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California’s Infrastructure Boondoggles Continue

High speed rail constructionEvery news story about the bullet train seems to be accompanied by a photo of workers building a viaduct in Fresno County.

This does nothing to dispel the impression that high-speed rail in California is actually a Marx Brothers movie.

Groucho: Over here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland.

Chico: Why a duck?

Groucho: I say that’s a viaduct.

Chico: All right, why a duck? Why a duck? Why not a chicken?

The latest news from the Marx Brothers is that the 119-mile Central Valley section currently under construction is $2.8 billion over budget.

That brings the estimated cost of the first phase to $10.6 billion and the cost of the entire project to at least $67 billion. Voters were told in 2008 that the high-speed train from San Francisco to Los Angeles would be completed for $40 billion, but more than a quarter of that money is gone and it’s not out of Fresno yet.

The train may not be going anywhere, but the project’s chief executive moved on in June, shortly after promising that there was no truth to a leaked federal report warning that the train was on track for cost overruns of more than $2 billion.

The new CEO, at a salary of nearly $385,000, is Gov. Jerry Brown’s transportation secretary, Brian Kelly. He says part of his job will be to “restore credibility” to the high-speed rail project, which would be a startling break with tradition.

Part of the problem in the Central Valley, the rail authority now says, is that construction began before all the land was acquired. This decision, which HSR executives promised not to repeat, was made because federal funds would have been lost if a deadline for the start of construction was missed.

That turned the negotiations for land into a W.C. Fields movie, “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.”

The federal deadline for starting construction was just one of many safeguards that were put in place to try to prevent the rail authority from wasting billions of dollars on a half-finished train to nowhere. Sadly, Gov. Jerry Brown and the HSR authority found ways around all of them.

Another questionable infrastructure proposal from the Brown administration, the so-called California WaterFix, is also running into budget difficulties.

The original plan called for spending $17 billion to construct two huge tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The idea was to get around the restrictions on pumping water from the delta to the Central Valley and Southern California, restrictions that have cut the flow of water in half since the 1980s.

The pumping restrictions resulted from lawsuits and settlements to protect declining populations of smelt and salmon, forcing another population — the people of California — to pay more for water, and for everything that’s produced with water, like food. Now billions will be spent to capture and clean up stormwater and groundwater, which wouldn’t be needed if California’s state and federal water projects hadn’t been shut down to protect the cast of “The Incredible Mr. Limpet.”

Some water districts refused to pay for the twin-tunnel project, so the Brown administration may downsize California WaterFix to one tunnel. It would still cost billions of dollars, but proponents would like you to know that none of the money will come from taxpayers. The whole thing will be billed to water users.

Californians who want to save money should take W.C. Fields’ advice: Never drink water.

olumnist and member of the editorial board of the Southern California News Group, and the author of the book, “How Trump Won.”

No More Excuses – Audit the High Speed Rail

Gov. Jerry Brown, Anne GustWith the revelation yesterday that the high-speed rail budget for the Central Valley segment jumped a whopping $2.8 billion there are no more excuses to prevent an independent audit of the rail project.

The cost for the Central Valley leg of the undertaking has jumped more than 75% from an original estimate of $6 billion to the newly revealed $10.6 billion. When voters approved state bonds to help build the venture, the total bond amount was actually under this new cost figure, less than $10 billion.

At the time of the bond vote in 2008, voters were told the entire bullet train project designed to run from San Francisco to Los Angeles was around $40 billion. That figure soon zoomed to almost $100 billion then settled back to around $64 billion.

What is the total cost to taxpayers now and how is the money being spent? An audit will tell us.

There have been previous audits of the system in 2010 and 2012. Both previous audits emphasized the risk involved in the high-speed rail undertaking.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson of Fresno in November requested an emergency audit of the high-speed rail project. Al Murasutchi, Chair of the Legislative Audit Committee, rejected the emergency audit bid. Because the legislature was in recess at the time, committee chairs have the authority to request an emergency audit. Now that the legislature is back in session, Patterson intends to request an audit before the Joint Legislative Audit Committee on January 30th.

There are no excuses this time. The taxpayers have a right to know how this long delayed, cost overrun project stands. An audit of the high-speed rail must go forward.

ditor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

As problems mount, California Democrats cling to their favorite boondoggle

High speed rail constructionWhen the father of the current governor of California was governor, he was a driving force behind the highway building boom that gilded the already Golden State. Aggressive road construction and free-flowing water were Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr.’s lasting legacies. By contrast, Governor Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, Jr. is looking at a legacy tarnished by a bullet train that will cost far more than projected, won’t thin out today’s jammed highways, and will never run on time.

Politicians like flashy new projects: a European-style bullet-rail line is more glamorous than maintaining battered transportation arteries and adding desperately needed highway capacity. But California’s 800-mile, high-speed rail plan is well on the way to becoming a legendary boondoggle. News that $35 million allocated for utilities costs had been transferred on an “emergency” basis to pay train contractors are one reason why Republican state assembly member Jim Patterson called for an emergency audit. “What are your plans to complete the project?” demanded Patterson last month of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. “Describe to us how you’re managing costs. Please explain to us why and how you are transferring hundreds of millions of dollars just to keep the construction going?”

Democrat Al Muratsuchi, chairman of the legislature’s Audit Committee, rejected the request on procedural grounds. His reasoning: because the legislature wasn’t in session, committee members and the public would be denied “the opportunity to have a say in the decision.” The rejection, combined with the train’s mounting troubles, makes it look like there is something to hide.

Muratsuchi has reportedly told Patterson that he can submit the request again in January, when the legislature is in session—in other words, when lawmakers will have an official opportunity to say no, or, if the request is granted, to spin whatever inconvenient news the audit turns up. Muratsuchi might think that Patterson is looking for a “gotcha” revelation to make headlines, but concern about the cost and progress of the rail line is well founded—from budget estimates and cost-containment policies to contingency planning if funding dries up. “We owe it to the people to demonstrate that the High-Speed Rail Authority isn’t going to skip town and leave us with a partially built track,” Patterson said. “Californians deserve to know what Plan B is—it’s time for a reality check.”

At about the same time that Patterson’s audit requested was denied, the High-Speed Rail Authority announced that its environmental reviews, which were supposed to be done by 2018, won’t be finished until 2020—just the latest delay in a project that has had too many to count. The Los Angeles Times reported in September that the 119-mile Central Valley segment alone is already $1.7 billion over budget and seven years behind schedule.

Policymakers sold the high-speed rail project to voters nearly a decade ago, in a ballot measure that promised a 220-mph super train that would blast passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in a tidy two hours and 40 minutes. Independent analysts say that the ride will likely take at least three hours and 50 minutes and as long as four hours and 40 minutes—or only an hour less than it currently takes to drive.

So it might not be very fast—but at least it will be cheap, right? Wrong again. Projected fares have risen along with the projected travel times. What was once estimated roughly as a $50 ticket between Los Angeles and San Francisco had inflated to $105 by 2009, according to the project’s business plan. The latest estimate: an $86 fare, which one can readily imagine going higher still by the time the train is operational.

Ridership estimates have steadily fallen. Voters were told that by 2030, the system would carry 65.5 million to 96.5 million riders a year—figures about three times higher than independent projections. At the lower numbers, not enough commuters will fill the seats to relieve the grinding congestion on the roads.

California has already spent more than $3 billion on a project with an estimated cost that has bounced around from the original $33 billion to $43 billion, then up to as much as $117 billion, before settling, at least for now, at about $68 billion. Some pressure is building to junk the project—to take a smaller loss now, that is, rather than a much larger one in the future. Letting the bullet train die would probably require a ballot initiative redirecting the project’s allocated but unspent funds to more useful projects—such as increased highway capacity. And that’s something that Californians could actually use.

Bullet train is likely to face more environmental hurdles

As reported by the Los Angeles Times:

California’s high-speed train project is likely to continue to be buffeted by environmental challenges as a result of a decision by the state’s top court.

In a 6-1 ruling last week written by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the California Supreme Court decided that federal rail law does not usurp California’s tough environmental regulation for state-owned rail projects.

The decision has broad significance, lawyers in the case said.

It clears the way for opponents of the $64-billion bullet train to file more lawsuits as construction proceeds and also allows Californians to challenge other rail uses, such as the movement of crude oil from fracking.

A federal court could later decide the matter differently, ruling that U.S. law trumps state regulation.

But lawyers in the field said …

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GOP lawmakers bet bullet train bad news will never end

high speed rail trainWill news about the California bullet train’s cost overruns and missed construction deadlines remain the norm for years to come? Or will the state’s $64 billion project find a groove and make considerable progress in coming years?

These are the key questions prompted by a concession that some Republican state lawmakers gained in return for helping Gov. Jerry Brown keep alive the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions cap-and-trade program until 2030. The provision could eventually end the state’s high-speed rail project, leaving a massive white elephant in the agricultural fields of the Central Valley. Or the concession could end up yielding a second vote validating a project first approved by state voters in 2008.

The concession – secured by Assembly Republican leader Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley – places a constitutional amendment drafted by Mayes before state voters in June 2018. If passed, it would lead to a one-time up-and-down vote in the Legislature in 2024 on whether to continue allowing the use of cap-and-trade revenue to fund the project. But the threshold wouldn’t be a simple majority. A two-thirds vote would be required to allow continued use of the funds – presumably giving GOP lawmakers a prime chance to pull the plug.

So far, the funding has been substantial in one sense but marginal in the big picture of trying to pay for a $64 billion project. After the fifth year of cap-and-trade distributions, about $1 billion has gone to the California High-Speed Rail Authority, with another $500 million expected this fiscal year. But it is considered crucial because it is the only new funding source Brown has found for the project, which has been unable to gain outside investors because of rules banning public subsidies for bullet-train operations.

Rail authority chair Dan Richard says he isn’t worried about a public veto in seven years: “By 2024, we’re going to be deep into construction. We’re going to be on the verge of opening the first service. We’ll be seeing Google and others making massive investments in areas around high-speed-rail stations. The case will be there for the importance of continued funding,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The authority’s 2016 business plan said the state expected to have $21 billion in hand from state bonds, federal grants and cap-and-trade funds to build a segment from San Jose heading south.

Feds expect cost overrun of 48% or more on first segment

But Mayes and other GOP lawmakers are betting that from here until 2024, the bad news about the project will never stop.

Lawyers for the Central Valley farmers and the government and civic officials they represent in lawsuits against the state government like to point out that – apart from court victories allowing the project to continue to spend public monies – there has been no substantial encouraging news about the project in years.

In January, the Los Angeles Times reported that it had obtained a confidential Federal Railroad Administration risk analysis that predicted a cost overrun of 48 percent or more on the initial 118-mile segment in the Central Valley. What the Brown administration has been saying would cost $6.4 billion is instead likely to be $9.5 billion to $10 billion, federal officials warned.

The idea that voters will be pleased with what they see in 2024 could be difficult to square with what rail authority officials told avisiting congressional delegation in August 2016: that construction is expected to stop in the middle of an almond orchard 30 miles northwest of Bakersfield when the money runs out.

This is contrary to promises made to voters in 2008 to get them to provide $9.95 billion in bond seed money for the project. They were guaranteed no construction would begin until the state could guarantee its initial segment would have financial viability without any more train tracks being laid.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Bullet train driving local transit boondoggles

ARTICSACRAMENTO – Over the past six years, California legislators and the governor have increased overall general-fund spending by $36 billion but couldn’t find extra money to spend on road, freeway and other meat-and-potatoes transportation projects. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t spending money like drunken brakemen on myriad rail-related projects.

Sacramento’s transportation focus has been transit, which Democratic leaders believe will reduce the state’s global-warming footprint and combat congestion by encouraging Californians to ditch their cars in favor of a rail pass. State leaders complain about a lack of money – hence, the newly signed law to boost gas taxes and vehicle-license fees – but the problem always comes down to priorities.

Bottom line: California officials are far more interested in social engineering than transportation engineering. They prefer to prod and cajole us into changing the way we get around than in building the infrastructure to help us actually get around. Even the new tax-hike package includes $750 million extra a year in transit projects and for biking and hiking projects, according to a Senate Republican analysis.

The most high-profile example of this approach is, of course, the governor’s pet high-speed rail project, a $64-billion-plus project that promises to connect the Bay Area to Southern California (via a variety of Central Valley cities) in about three hours. The rail authority last week sold $1.25 billion in bonds as it seeks to get something on the ground so there’s no turning back.

As former Assembly speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2013, referring to the cost-overrun-laden Transbay Terminal in San Francisco: “If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

At least he was honest. A lot of sensible people have wondered why the Brown administration is spending so much time and scarce transportation dollars on a bullet train that won’t be particularly fast and faces enormous geographical hurdles (getting over the Tehachapi Mountains, for starters). Well, Jerry Brown is following the Willie Brown model: he’s trying to dig a hole that’s as deep and wide as possible.

In fact, state and local governments are digging several holes – fiscal sink holes, actually, that are closely linked to the bullet-train project. For instance, Orange County taxpayers, thanks to the Measure M tax, spent $120 million to build the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center. Its acronym, ARTIC, is a good one given that the bullet train should reach that destination sometime after hell freezes over.

This largely empty 67,000 square-foot boondoggle was meant as a central hub for the county’s bus, Metrolink and other transit services – but was justified because of the role it could play as the end point for the bullet train. The project’s boosters predicted 10,000 riders daily, but it struggles to serve 2,800 a day. As I wrote for the Orange County Register recently, it was supposed to pay for itself, but it’s only expected to earn $1.4 million of its $3.9 million annual budget. The city’s tourism district has decided to stop paying the deficit, which will now be borne by Anaheim taxpayers.

It’s an even more precarious situation in San Francisco. Willie Brown might be okay with the $2.4 billion spent on that Transbay Transit Center, a similar hub in the city by the Bay, but that city’s taxpayers should be less thrilled by its $20 million in annual operating subsidies a year.

“The three-block-long behemoth was envisioned as the Grand Central Station of the West, a dynamic hub for buses and high-speed rail that would draw more than 100,000 visitors a day,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle columnists Matier & Ross. “Come opening day, however, there will be no high-speed rail. Instead, for many years, the five-level showcase … will be little more than the world’s most expensive bus station — serving mainly the 14,000 Transbay bus commuters … .”

And other costs are coming for that project. “For high-speed rail to reach the new terminal,” says California Policy Center’s Marc Joffe, “Caltrain would have to be extended 1.3 miles from its current San Francisco terminus at 4th and Townsend. It would cost a lot of money – perhaps a billion dollars – to build this new 1.3-mile subway.”

San Francisco is also spending nearly $1.6 billion, in coordination with Caltrain and the California High Speed Rail Authority, to connect the Caltrain commuter rail depot to the North Beach neighborhood. There are legitimate local reasons to extend this light-rail system perhaps, but the prospect of a pie-in-the-sky bullet train is driving some of these decisions. These are costly projects – and the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Likewise, Los Angeles Metro officials just approved a massive overhaul of Union Station to enable it to “handle an expected doubling in the number of daily passengers by 2040,” according to Curbed Los Angeles. “Another big part of the project is readying Union Station for high-speed rail service” even though “questions continue to swirl around the fate of that much-delayed project as political opposition to it grows in Congress … .”

Yeah, but you’ve got to start digging holes, especially holes that get transit advocates clapping.

Los Angeles magazine wrote last week that “Against all odds, the California Bullet Train Barrels Forward.” Well, it is true the state’s political leadership won’t take no for an answer, and the courts continue to let the current project barrel ahead even though many of its main promises are at odds with the supposedly ironclad promises made to voters when they approved the initial $9.95 billion bond funding in 2008’s Proposition 1A.

Last week, a superior court judge said bond money can be spent despite an ongoing legal challenge. But overcoming political and legal hurdles isn’t the same things as surmounting myriad fiscal and engineering feats, which lie at the heart of the bullet-train’s problems.

One of the fathers of this rail project, former judge Quentin Kopp, has argued that the high-speed rail (HSR) project “is no longer a genuine HSR system, as covenanted to California voters and the Legislature. Instead, it has been distorted in a way directly contrary to the high-speed rail plan the authority attempted to implement while I was chairman.” He takes issue with the current “blended” system, which shares commuter-line tracks near Los Angeles and San Francisco. He also complained about the way bullet-train funds are used for that central subway project in San Francisco.

Certainly, sending supposed bullet trains along commuter tracks will vastly reduce the speed of the trains – and the whole purpose of a project designed to provide speedy north-to-south transportation. But Kopp, who made his arguments as a declaration in one of the lawsuits opposing the current rail project, is thinking rationally, whereas the Brown administration and the rail authority are too busy embracing Willie Brown’s cynical approach.

I argued for the California Policy Center that the new $5.2 billion a year transportation tax really is a pension tax given that state officials have refused to rein in pension costs, which will soon require the state to dump $11 billion a year into the pension systems. Had state officials fixed the pension mess, they would have had plenty of cash to fund extra transportation projects.

But the new tax increases also can be thought of as a high-speed rail tax. If state officials weren’t spending so much money on these wasteful rail-related transit projects, they’d have extra money to fix roads, bridges and freeways – and to provide realistic transit projects rather than overbuilt boondoggles designed with a future fantasy train in mind.

Steven Greenhut is a contributing editor to California Policy Center. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

This piece was originally published by the California Policy Center.

Judge allows California high-speed rail project to proceed

As reported by the Sacramento Bee:

A California judge allowed the state’s bullet train project to go forward Wednesday but delayed a final ruling on a legal challenge asserting the state is not keeping its promises to voters.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Raymond Cadei denied opponents’ attempt to temporarily block the state from spending about $1.25 billion from the sale of $10 billion in bonds last week for the project intended to link Los Angeles and San Francisco with a bullet train.

He did not immediately rule on their underlying challenge to the $64 billion project after hearing arguments.

However, recent changes to the train plan detailed in the lawsuit fall within what voters approved in 2008, Cadei said, echoing the reasoning in his tentative decision issued Tuesday. …

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