Is Hyperloop Technology the Future of CA Transportation?

Hyperloop mockupElon Musk proposed it years ago. This January, he announced he’d enable teams to test it out on a track in Texas. But the first entrepreneur to ink a deal for a Hyperloop test track will bring the concept to life in California.

According to Navigant Research and CBS News, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies — an entity that picked up independently where Musk left off with the idea — “has inked a deal with landowners in central California to build the world’s first Hyperloop test track.” Beginning in 2016, HTT would oversee construction of five miles of track along I-5, where, once completed, test speeds will be kept to around 200 miles per hours — less than a third of the top rate of travel envisioned by Musk.

Outlays for the fully-completed Hyperloop would likely come in far under the budget for California’s high-speed rail project, even with cost overruns:

The 5-mile test track is estimated to cost about $100 million, which Hyperloop Transportation Technologies hopes to pay for with its initial public offering (IPO) later this year, according to Navigant’s blog. Assuming building costs remain the same, a 400-mile (644 km) track between Los Angeles and San Francisco would cost about $8 billion (not including development costs), experts estimate. This price tag is still far less than that for California’s planned high-speed rail project, which could cost $67.6 billion, according to the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Multiple teams

HTT emerged from a crowdsourcing platform, JumpStartFund, created in 2013 by Dirk Ahlborn. “He’s used it to attract experts with day jobs at universities and companies such as Boeing and SpaceX who moonlight on the project in exchange for future profits,” as National Geographic explained.

But HTT has developed a reputation as the scrappy upstart among contending Hyperloop initiatives. Hyperloop Technologies, based in Los Angeles, assembled an all-star team. NatGeo counted “Brogan BamBrogan, a key former SpaceX engineer; Jim Messina, the manager of President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign; David Sacks, who worked under Musk at PayPal, and Shervin Pishevar, investor in ridesharing company Uber who prodded Musk to go public with his Hyperloop vision.”

Skepticism and savvy

As has long been the case with newfangled technologies, critics have not been shy about questioning the mechanics behind Hyperloop’s eye-popping goals. Beyond simple safety concerns — a leak in the vacuum created to make it move so fast would be disastrous — critics have claimed that “solar panels alone cannot generate the energy needed for 800mph travel. Even if successful, the issue of the enormous g-forces experienced by passengers when travelling at the Hyperloop’s top speed will also need to be addressed,” Alphr reported.

But for now, the intrinsic appeal and excitement of Hyperloop has brought enough momentum to carry the project forward. Looking to capitalize on the interest, Ahlborn has even teased the ultimate in futuristic transportation: a free ride. As Endgaget noted, he revealed “he’s considering a business model that apes what we see in free-to-play mobile games. The CEO is kicking around the idea that the travel itself would either be free or dirt cheap, with passengers charged for a series of as-yet undisclosed upgrades. Of course, since we’re still a decade or more away from a commercial version of the system, there’s plenty of time for him to change his mind.”

In the meantime, Hyperloop’s innovators have already encountered initial opposition from a potentially more formidable foe than armchair critics: California’s own government. “Transit authorities in California reportedly balked at the idea,” according to Fast Company, “concerned about earthquakes and the fact that such a system would have to span all kinds of terrain and privately owned land.” With his I-5 corridor test track, Ahlborn has begun to answer at least one of those objections.

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Desalination Plants vs. Bullet Trains and Pensions

Current policy solutions enacted to address California’s water crisis provide an object lesson in how corruption masquerading as virtue is impoverishing the general population to enrich a handful of elites. Instead of building freeways, expanding ports, restoring bridges and aqueducts, and constructing dams, desalination plants, and power stations, California’s taxpayers are pouring tens of billions each year into public sector pension funds – who invest 90 percent of the proceeds out-of-state, and the one big construction project on the table, the $100M+ “bullet train,” fails to justify itself under virtually any credible cost/benefit analysis. Why?

The reason is because infrastructure, genuinely conceived in the public interest, lowers the cost of living. This in-turn causes artificially inflated asset values to fall, imperiling the solvency of pension funds – something that would force them to reduce benefits. Beneficial infrastructure is also a threat to crony capitalists who don’t want a business climate that attracts competitors. Affordable land, energy, and water encourage economic growth. Crony capitalists and public sector unions alike hide behind environmentalists, who oppose growth and development, all of it, everywhere – because no new developments, anywhere, suits their monopolistic interests. No wonder the only infrastructure vision still alive in California, the “bullet train,” is nothing more than a gigantic, tragic farce.

Urban Water Consumption is a Small Fraction of Total Water Use

Returning to the topic of water, a basic examination of the facts reveals the current drought to be a problem that could be easily solved, if it weren’t for powerful special interests who don’t want it to be solved, ever. Here’s a rough summary of California’s annual water use. In a dry year, around 150 million acre feet (MAF) fall onto California’s watersheds in the form of rain or snow, in a wet year, we get about twice that much. Most of that water either evaporates, percolates or eventually runs into the ocean. In terms of net water withdrawals, each year around 31 MAF are diverted for the environment, such as to guarantee fresh water inflow into the delta, 27 MAF are diverted for agriculture, and 6.6 MAF are diverted for urban use. Of the 6.6 MAF that is diverted for urban use, 3.7 MAF is used by residential customers, and the rest is used by industrial, commercial and government customers.

Put another way, we divert 65 million acre feet of water each year in California for environmental, agricultural and urban uses, and a 25 percent reduction in water usage by residential customers will save exactly 0.9 million acre feet – or 1.4 percent of our total statewide water usage. One good storm easily dumps ten times as much water onto California’s watersheds as we’ll save via a 25 percent reduction in annual residential water consumption.

California’s politicians can impose utterly draconian curbs on residential water consumption, and it won’t make more than a small dent in the problem. We have to increase the supply of water.

Desalination is An Affordable Option

water-desalinationOne way to increase California’s supply of fresh water is to build desalination plants. This technology is already in widespread use throughout the world, deployed at massive scale in Singapore, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Australia and elsewhere. One of the newest plants worldwide, the Sorek plant in Israel, cost $500 million to build and desalinates 627,000 cubic meters of water per day. That means that five of these plants, costing $2.5 billion to build, could desalinate 1.0 million acre feet per year. And since these modern plants, using 16″ diameter reverse osmosis filtration tubes, only require 5 kWh per cubic meter of desalinated water, it would only require a 700 megawatt power plant to provide sufficient energy to desalinate 1.0 million acre feet per year. Currently it takes about 300 megawatts for the Edmonston Pumping Plant to lift one MAF of water from the California aqueduct 1,926 ft (587 m) over the Tehachapi Mountains into the Los Angeles basin. And that’s just the biggest lift, the California aqueduct uses several pumping stations to transport water from north to south. So the net energy costs to desalinate water on location vs transporting it hundreds of miles are not that far apart.

The entire net urban water consumption on California’s “South Coast” (this includes all of Los Angeles and Orange County – over 13 million people) is 3.5 MAF. Desalination plants with capacity to supply 100 percent of the urban water required by Los Angeles and Orange counties would cost under $10 billion, and require 2.5 gigawatts of electric power. These power stations could also be built for under $10 billion.

Imagine that. For $20 billion in capital investment we could provide 100 percent of the fresh water required by nearly all of Southern California’s urban water users. For around $50 billion, 100 percent of California’s urban water requirements, statewide, could be financed – the desalination plants and the power stations.

California’s taxpayers are currently condemned to shell out at least 500 billion dollars over the next 20-30 years so a train that hardly anyone will ride will careen through expropriated land, and pension funds can invest 90 percent of their assets out-of-state so public sector employees can retire 10-15 years early with pensions that are 3-5 times greater than Social Security. For less than one-tenth of that amount, we can solve our water crisis by investing in desalination. Why not, environmentalists? We’re willing to carpet the land with solar farms, exterminate raptors with the blades of wind turbines, and incinerate the rain forests to grow palm oil – all financed by selling carbon emission permits. Why not disburse brine offshore, where the California current will disburse it far more efficiently than any desalination plant situated on the Mediterranean Sea?

Another way to solve California’s urban water crisis is to recycle 100% of indoor water. Quaternary treatment, where water from sewage is purified and sent back upstream for reuse, is another proven technology already in limited use throughout California. In theory, not one drop of indoor water use can be wasted, since all of it can be reused.

And, of course, imagine how quickly California’s water crisis could be solved if farmers could sell their water allotments to urban water agencies. As it is, myriad restrictions largely prevent them from exercising this option, even though many of them could profitably sell their water allotments and make more than they make farming the crop. Do we really need to grow rice in the Mojave desert to export to China?

Environmentalists alone are not powerful enough to stop Californians from acting to increase water supply. Powerful government unions, pension funds, and anti-competitive corporate interests all have a stake in perpetuating artificial scarcity and authoritarian remedies. It suits them because it consolidates their power, and ensures they get a bigger slice of a smaller pie.

*   *   *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

Bullet Train: Show Us the Money

Funding for the high-speed rail is still the big issue even though groundbreaking for the project occurred. California taxpayers are paying a share thanks to a bond passed six years ago and a decision by the legislature to funnel a portion of the cap-and-trade money to the rail project. But where’s the rest of the money coming from?

It wasn’t exactly the Golden Spike ceremony but the media event to herald the beginning of the high speed rail construction went off with some similarities to the event that joined the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory in 1869.

In Fresno yesterday, dignitaries signed the first section of rail for the project, led by California Governor Jerry Brown. In Utah nearly a century-and-a-half ago, former California Governor Leland Stanford drove in the rail line’s last spike that was engraved with the names of the railroad’s officers and directors.

Supporters of the bullet train compare their building effort to that of the transcontinental railroad. But while the transcontinental project was spurred by offering free land to private railroad companies to get them involved, the rail authority is relying on businesses seeing an advantage to the train and stepping up to fund it. So far outsider (non-government) funding has not answered the call.

Governor Brown acknowledged the financial challenges ahead for the rail at the ceremony. He said, “I wasn’t quite sure where the hell we were going to get the rest of the money … but don’t worry about it. We’re going to get it.”

With no business investment and Congress unlikely to contribute more after an initial $3 billion grant, money for the $68 billion project (think more-isn’t it always that way with big projects?) is still a huge question.

Californians paying for gasoline are doing their share to pay for the train, whether they support it or not, and polls show support for the train is down. With the cap-and-trade law now applied to transportation fuel and 25 percent of cap-and-trade money dedicated to the train, motorists are already paying for the construction.

Reporter Timm Herdt did an analysis of the first week of cap-and-trade’s effect on gasoline prices in the state and concluded the law added about seven cents to a gallon of gas. See his report here.

As I wrote previously in Fox and Hounds in a post titled, Start to Build it and They will Come,it’s apparent that a strategy to build the train is to begin the project thus putting pressure on the legislature to see that it is funded to completion. The expectation from train advocates is that no one wants to see only a 29-mile track in the Central Valley once the first leg is completed and money runs out.

Uncertainty about the train’s funding not only surrounds private dollars, but the important cap-and-trade funding source could be in jeopardy depending on the outcome of a lawsuit the California Chamber of Commerce filed against the Air Resources Board. The suit declares the cap-and-trade money is actually a tax that required a two-thirds vote of the legislature. The lawsuit is currently in the Third District Court of Appeal and will probably be heard this spring.

The transcontinental railroad project broke ground in January of 1863. It was completed less than 6-and-a-half years later. The high-speed rail project has been the slow-speed rail project in comparison. Thirty-five years since it was conceived, six years since the state bond passed, and far from the necessary money in sight to complete the project.

Perhaps the groundbreaking ceremony got so much attention from those involved because in the end there may be no closing ceremony similar to Promontory Summit if the money is not there to finish the project.

This article was originally published on Fox and Hounds Daily

Follow Joel Fox in Twitter at @1JoelFox1

Gov. Brown, officials gather in Fresno to launch high-speed rail construction

As reported by the Fresno Bee:

With California Gov. Jerry Brown leading the way, a ceremony Tuesday in downtown Fresno marked the start of construction on the high-speed rail project, more than six years after voters approved a $9.9 billion bond act that will help fund the system.

Rather than donning hard hats and shovels, however, Brown and other dignitaries signed ceremonial pieces of steel rails to signal that the project is underway. The invitation-only ceremony took place at the future site of Fresno’s high-speed rail station on the northeast corner of Tulare and G streets, while a small but boisterous gathering of protesters punctuated the event with occasional shouts and chants.

Read the full story here 

Bakersfield Drops High-Speed Rail Lawsuit

As 2015 approaches, California’s high-speed rail project keeps barreling down the track. On Dec. 19, the city of Bakersfield dropped its lawsuit against construction. The city’s settlement with the California High-Speed Rail Authority stipulated, among other things:

“The city has met with the HSRA to identify a locally-generated potential alignment alternative for an area within the Section extending from approximately north of Seventh Standard Road in Kern County to Oswell Street in the City of Bakersfield….”

The above map (bigger version here) shows the change in the route in Bakersfield, from the purple line to the green line.

The settlement also mentioned the project still is being challenged by “six other petitioners.” They are:

  • Kern County;
  • Kings County, Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability and the Kings County Farm Bureau;
  • City of Shafter;
  • Coffee Brimhall, a development company;
  • The Bakersfield First Free Will Baptist Church;
  • Dignity Health.

In exchange for dropping the case, the CHSRA reopened the study of a new alignment that will be less damaging to the city of Bakersfield and will promote more public engagement.  In essence, the settlement reopens a previously project-level environmental impact report and study the CHSRA board certified on May 7.

Under the settlement, the CHSRA has the right to continue with the original train route. But Bakersfield retains the right to sue again if the same damaging route ultimately is selected.

Highlights

According to settlement highlights released by the city of Bakersfield (full document is below), the CHSRA agreed:

  • To develop a conceptual alignment that generally parallels the Union Pacific Railroad through downtown Bakersfield with a station generally located in the area of F Street and Golden State Avenue;
  • Work with Bakersfield to co-sponsor public workshops;
  • Work with with local property owners impacted by the alignment to address those impacts;
  • When the conceptual alignment is refined, in good faith evaluate the new alignment along with the route that was previously certified by the CHSRA;
  • Agree not to pursue additional design work or expend funds or approve or construct the previously selected route while the study is being completed;
  • When the study is complete and the CHSRA is ready to decide on the alignment and station location, it will meet in Bakersfield;
  • Agree not to exclusively rely on its prior certification of the hybrid alignment to approve the ultimate alignment and station location in the city.

Surface Transportation Board 

As CalWatchdog.com reported last week, “the U.S. Surface Transportation Board ruled in favor of the CHSRA in a dispute over whether the STB’s authority to green-light the project takes precedence over the California Environmental Quality Act.” The CHSRA wanted, and got, construction stoppage off the table as a CEQA remedy – at least for now, pending actions in the other lawsuits.

The San Jose Mercury News reported the CHSRA-Bakersfield legal negotiations pre-dated the STB ruling. However, Recital H in the new agreement stipulated:

“HSRA asserts that the STB Order deprives the Sacramento Superior Court of jurisdiction over the CEQA and related causes of action in the Bakersfield Lawsuit, as well as in the related Lawsuits. The City disagrees with HSRA’s assertion concerning the effect of the STB Order.” 

And “Section 4.5 Waivers” of the agreement reads:

“The City agrees it will not challenge, contest or appeal the STB Order in any way, including but not limited to via the STB itself or via any other court, board or tribunal.”

So the STB ruling certainly was part of the legal atmosphere surrounding the last days of negotiations.

Bakersfield also agreed it will not file a National Environmental Quality Act lawsuit or challenge funding prior to the study of the alternate alignment.

In sum, Bakersfield gains a couple of things from the agreement. It gets a breather from the controversy that will follow the STB decision. It gains a fresh look at a less damaging rail alignment. And in engages its local community, while retaining the right to file another lawsuit if it doesn’t like the final outcome.

The CHSRA gets one of seven lawsuits off the train table.

Bakersfield settlement highlights


 

This articles was originally published at CalWatchdog.com. 

High Speed Rail Strategy – START to Build it and They Will Come!

The High Speed Rail project found its way into three of the five panels in the Public Policy Institute’s all-day State of Changeconference Wednesday. At the end of the day, you understood the High Speed Rail authority’s strategy to gain support  for the project – START to build it and they will come!

In an opening discussion, Nancy McFadden, Executive Secretary to Governor Jerry Brown, said that the need for High Speed Rail is more important now than when voters initially passed the bond in 2008 moving the project forward. She cited the governor’s pledge to reduce carbon emissions and the need to move people around the state that will have 50 million residents by 2025.

Acknowledging but brushing aside obstacles facing the bullet train she said litigation was going well, the Federal government came through with money and the legislature approved cap-and-trade funds to get the project started.

However, this funding is not nearly enough. It appears that Republicans controlling Congress have no interest in continuing funding for the train. No private investors have stepped up to take up a share of the costs promised voters when the High Speed Rail bond was on the ballot. While the cap-and-trade funds are a steady revenue source that can be leveraged with borrowing, there is still a big funding gap for the project.

Jeff Morales, chief executive officer of the High Speed Rail project, argued in a later panel that the funding would arrive. He said the message from the High Speed Rail authority to Washington is “leave us alone” for two years. In other words, the project has the resources to get the project started and then he expects Washington would get on board once they see progress.

Clearly, advocates for the project believe that once the project is started there will be no stopping it.

McFadden said when people see the project is being built they will support it. Morales called the project an investment in both California and its people. He noted that 30-percent of the contracts will go to small businesses in the area and that in a few years, “Everyone in the Valley will know someone involved in the program.”

He said that regional chambers of commerce and all large city mayors supported the project.

Morales argued that the two tracks being constructed would substitute for 2,500 of highway lane miles that would be needed to transport people around the state in the future. But that assumes the predictions on ridership are accurate. Experts have questioned not only the ridership projections, but also the projected ticket costs per rider and the speed in which the rail authority says it will take the bullet train to cover the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Assemblyman Rocky Chavez offered a different perspective on the train in a third panel discussion. He said the train was actually in your garage. Advancing technology will see electric, driverless cars running on the roads moving along together like a train, he said. Referring to the building of the High Speed Rail, he added,  ‘and you don’t need to rip up farmland.’

Train advocates are not about to wait for that future. Not when the strategy appears to be start putting down the track and see if anyone can stop them.

This article was originally publish on Fox and Hounds Daily

High-Speed Rail Takes Two More Swipes at CEQA

In his 2013 State of the State address, Gov. Jerry Brown quoted “The Little Engine That Could”: “I think I can. I think I can.”

One thing the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which runs the project, thinks it can do is get around the California Environmental Quality Act. As noted in the first article in this series, it started with two attempts:

  • Attempt 1: During the California Legislature’s closing days in August 2012, the CHSRA tried to pass more lenient measures to comply with CEQA. The Legislature didn’t cooperate.
  • Attempt 2: In June 2013, the CHSRA filed a request with the 3rd District Court of Appeal in the city of Atherton’s suit against the project. The CHSRA wanted the court to recognize the federal pre-emption of jurisdiction, getting around state laws, such as CEQA. The court refused.

Attempt 3

Attempt 3: De-publication. Now, in its third attempt to get around CEQA, on Sept. 22 California Attorney General Kamala Harris asked the California Supreme Court for the de-publication of the 3rd District’s decision in the Atherton case. If granted, it would have meant future cases would have been restricted in using this case for precedent. Harris is representing the CHSRA.   

Basically, what Harris and the CHSRA said was that, regardless of the language in Proposition 1A in 2008, they instead wanted to put the project into federal jurisdiction. And that, any interpretation to the contrary, such as that by the 3rd District Court of Appeal, had “misinterpreted” those facts, and ought to be de-published.

De-publication would have offered a quick way to minimize the damage of the 3rd District Court of Appeal’s decision. If the Supreme Court had agreed to de-publish the decision, it would have blocked that decision from being used as a precedent for other cases.

Stuart Flashman, an attorney for Kings County and two residents who have brought suit to stop the project, filed a brief against the de-publication, arguing:

“If the Attorney General wished to press these points, her proper recourse was to petition for review, and the other agencies could have supported review….

“If the parties seeking de-publication feel that major state transportation projects should not be subject to CEQA review, that argument should be addressed to the Legislature, which clearly knows how to exempt classes of projects from CEQA review when it feels such exemption is warranted.”

On Oct. 29, the Supreme Court denied the de-publication request. Therefore, the 3rd District Court of Appeal’s decision is now final and conclusive.

Attempt 4

Attempt 4: the Surface Transportation Board. Private attorneys Nossaman LLP have a $17 million contract to represent the CHSRA. An Oct. 9 petition by Nossaman asked for declaratory relief, that is, an official declaration of the status of a matter in controversy to expedite a court case.

In this case, the CHSRA is specifically asking the STB to take off the table any request for a injunction against construction for any party suing under CEQA. The CHSRA want federal laws to preempt state laws.

(The STB is a federal agency under the Department of Transportation. A year ago, on Dec. 3, 2013, the STB declared it held federal jurisdiction because California’s tracks would also be used by Amtrak; and the tracks cross state lines.)

The CHSRA wants to prevent the chance of a construction injunction being granted for a Central Valley case represented by  Attorney Doug Carstens from Chatten-Brown & Carstens LLP. He represents  Kings County, Citizens for High Speed Rail Accountability and the Kings County Farm Bureau.

The reason his clients are suing is because of alleged CEQA improprieties in the Fresno-to-Bakersfield segment. The CHSRA said that, if the injunction was granted, it could endanger the start of building the high-speed rail system; and the CHSRA has a tight time frame on the use of $3.5 billion in federal funds.

But there is no emergency. The actual case is not expected to be heard until mid-summer 2015. Moreover, there are six other CEQA cases filed against the project and not one of them is ready to go to court this month.

A decision from the STB is expected soon. If the STB grants declaratory relief, basically preempting CEQA with a federal supremacy claim, the next step will be the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

This piece was originally published at CalWatchdog.com


Kathy Hamilton is the Ralph Nader of high-speed rail, continually uncovering hidden aspects of the project and revealing them to the public.  She started writing in order to tell local communities how the project affects them and her reach grew statewide.  She has written more than 225 articles on high-speed rail and attended hundreds of state and local meetings. She is a board member of the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail; has testified at government hearings; has provided public testimony and court declarations on public records act requests; has given public testimony; and has provided transcripts for the validation of court cases.

 

Could the High Speed Rail Ruling Imperil the Water Bond?

Proposition 1, the $7 billion water bond, has broad support from both Democrats and Republicans.  Unlike the previous version of the bond – which had an $11 billion cost – the updated version has less pork and a few more promises for actual water storage.  While HJTA opposed the previous version (and indeed we signed the ballot argument against it) we have taken no position on Proposition 1.  Our neutrality is compelled, at least in part, by the recognition that California does indeed have legitimate needs for improvements in our statewide water infrastructure.

But now we have a new concern.

The California Supreme Court has recently declined to hear an appeal in one of the many lawsuits challenging the California’s High Speed Rail project.  This is a case we originally won in the trial court which blocked the issuance of the High Speed Rail bonds because the project bore no relationship to the project that was promised to the voters back in 2008.  But in a ruling that stunned taxpayers, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court which correctly found that the Constitution expressly requires the state prove that issuance of the bonds is “necessary or desirable.”   This constitutional mandate ensures that government lives up to the promises it makes to the voters.

A proper interpretation of the California Constitution would require voter approval of, not just the amount of the debt, but specification of the project to be funded.  In our lawsuit, we argued that the current HSR plan so deviates from the proposal presented to voters in 2008 that voter approval of the former proposal should not be deemed approval of today’s plan.  We presented evidence showing that today’s plan is not the true high-speed train that voters were promised.  The HSR bond measure promised that the project would be built with federal and private matching funds.  But today’s plan calls for a system that is not truly “high speed” and is funded primarily by California taxpayers.  (And, by the way, the projected costs have now tripled).

So how does the high court’s inaction impact today’s Proposition 1, the Water Bond?  The fact that the judiciary will not uphold expressed requirements in a bond proposal raises the specter that, no matter what a bond proposal promises about what will be built with the bond proceeds, those promises are meaningless.  In other words, when California voters are asked to approve a bond, are they just approving debt for any purpose at all?  This is the very definition of a blank check.

As the result of California Courts refusing to uphold the language of the High Speed Rail bonds, the opponents of any bond proposal, at either the state or local level, need only point to High-Speed Rail to remind voters that promises in a voter approved bond proposal are meaningless and unenforceable.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

This article originally appeared on HJTA.org

Californians Should Get Another Vote on High Speed Rail

Imagine you found the house of your dreams. The price is $450,000. You sign papers only to later learn the sellers made a mistake. The price for the house is actually $1 million. Fortunately, under California real estate law, you can back out of the deal. But if you were a California voter buying a train instead of a house, you might be out of luck.

In November 2008 California voters narrowly approved—by a vote of 52.7% to 47.3%— Proposition 1A. The measure authorizes nearly $20 billion in state spending to establish high-speed train service linking Southern California counties, the Sacramento/San Joaquin Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area.

At the time, the entire project was expected to cost about $45 billion. Proponents claimed funds from other public and private sources would cover the project’s remaining costs.

Tom McClintock, Jon Coupal and I co-authored the opposition ballot argument. We called the measure a “boondoggle” that “could cost $90 billion—the most expensive railroad in history.” We warned that no one really knew how much the project would ultimately cost.

After years of waste and mismanagement, California’s High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) has finally admitted what critics like us warned all along: “Building the entire system will take longer and cost more than previously estimated.”

In fact, the price tag for this risky transit gamble is now nearly $100 billion—more than twice the original estimate. The new number is greater than California’s entire annual state budget. To fund the entire project today, every Californian, including men, women and children, would need to write a check for more than $2500.

Without those checks, existing funding will only be enough to cover the first phase of the project connecting Fresno and Bakersfield. Should additional funding materialize, Merced and San Jose will be the next stops.

Despite the uncertainty, the folks at CHSRA claim California voters still want to buy this train. At a recent press conference, CHSRA chair and former Democrat Assemblyman Tom Umberg said, “There are some things that do change—development changes, cost changes. But the will of the California voter, I believe, remains the same today…”

Mr. Umberg might believe California voters are still on board, but I’m not so sure. Much has changed since 2008. California’s unemployment rate has risen from single to double digits, the state’s budget has become much, much tighter, and our credit rating has been downgraded to the worst of any state in the nation.

Further, the deadly collision of two high speed trains in China earlier this year has prompted new worries about the safety of high speed rail and led to the recall of 54 trains, reduced speed limits and a moratorium on new projects in that country.

Finally, renewed concerns about our nation’s debt and overall government spending make the outlook for federal funding far less certain. Congressman Kevin McCarthy has introduced a measure that would freeze federal funding and require a thorough audit of the project. The measure, introduced last month, is being co-sponsored by nine other California congressmen.

Perhaps California voters support high speed rail regardless of the cost. If so, high speed rail proponents shouldn’t fear a new vote on their new plan. If not, it would be a breach of contract—or as liberal columnist Tom Elias puts it—“a bait and switch”—to move forward with a costly plan that is little like the one Californians voted for three years ago.

As even Mr. Umberg admits, there are other options for improving California’s crumbling transportation infrastructure. One hundred billion dollars—or even a smaller portion of that number—could do much to improve the roads, freeways, ports and airports Californians use every day. The taxpayers who will foot the bill should make this call.

To that end, Senator Doug LaMalfa plans to introduce legislation putting the project back on the ballot. California taxpayers should support his effort and urge Governor Jerry Brown, the Legislature and the CHSRA board to do the same.

(George Runner represents more than nine million Californians as a member of the State Board of Equalization. For more information, visit www.boe.ca.gov/Runner. This article was first published in Fox & Hounds.)

Bullet train ridership projections down in latest plan


From the SD Tribune:

The new business plan for building California’s $98 billion high-speed rail project estimates that between 23 million and 34 million passengers will use the system by the time bullet trains traverse the state two decades from now.

If those numbers fail to pan out, taxpayers could be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars a year in operating expenses.

Getting the number right is crucial to avoid public subsidies in the future, but predicting ridership is complicated and in some ways a guessing game. It relies on unknowns such as future gas prices and airline taxes, population growth, traffic patterns and even technology that has yet to be invented.

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