Wednesday, November 27, 2013

California's High-Speed Rail Derailed?

If this boondoggle fails for the "wrong" reasons, I'm still ok with that:
California’s bullet train boondoggle was sucker punched yesterday, as a Sacramento Superior Court judge blocked $68 billion in bond funding. The same case saw a separate ruling allowing the state to spend $3.4 billion in federal cash for the project, while a second case (same judge) rejected the rail authority’s request to issue $8 billion in bonds that voters approved in 2008. The judge ruled the project would need to meet various mandates, compliances and environmental clearances before the funding stream can be allowed to flow.

The convoluted rulings are yet another sign that California’s toxic regulatory and legal environment makes any public works project slow, expensive and Pyrrhic...

We’ve long argued that the train is an awful idea, but it looks like it’s starting to fail for all the wrong reasons. It would be good to see some common sense shape a consensus that the project’s exorbitant costs and marginal utility make it not worth the while. But no, the train is being derailed by red tape.
Hoist by their own big-government petard, some might say.

The judge didn't give the "derail it!" side everything it wanted, though:
By rejecting the state’s specious legal arguments, refusing to validate the issuance of state bonds, and insisting on a complete financial plan as the law requires, Kenny signaled a strict attitude that could bode ill for the project in another big legal challenge next year...

One of Kenny’s rulings says, in effect, that the state can’t build that short stretch in the San Joaquin Valley without a plan that lays out how a much longer stretch from Merced to Southern California can be financed.

Since the state has barely enough money for the first stretch, the barrier to meeting the larger financial standard is very high.

The judge’s strict constructionist attitude toward the law governing the project could bite again when he weighs another suit that alleges other ballot measure standards are being ignored – such as requiring a 160-minute ride from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles.
So it could still happen, although the likelihood is now less.

This, California voters, is what happens when you vote what feels good instead of what makes sense.  Kinda like that stem cell research vote a few years ago; how much is that costing us, and why is it so important that California pay for that?

Let's close with some common sense:
Brown should acknowledge that the project as now planned is doomed and either kill it or go back to the voters with a revision that includes realistic routes and costs and lays out how it will be financed.

If it’s worth doing – a debatable point – it’s worth doing right and not with legal sleight-of-hand and pie-in-the-sky financing.
California doesn't need high-speed rail.  If it needs rail at all, it needs a car-train (and not one run by the government).  There are vast distances to be covered out here in the West, and putting your loaded car on a train one day and being in Portland or Seattle the next day sounds like a winner to me--at least, judging by the traffic on I-5 it does.

Update, 11/30/13Not surprised:
These are immense obstacles. Yet instead of acknowledging their seriousness, rail authority board Chairman Dan Richard depicted them as predictable “challenges,” and a spokeswoman said the authority would proceed with its plans to seize land for the project in the Central Valley via eminent domain.


Auntie Ann said...

Anything that interferes with freight rail diminishes the efficiency of our transportation system. It is highly efficient to sent heavy materials by rail. It is not efficient at all to send passengers by rail.

Whenever I tell people that the US has a rail system that is the envy of the world, they are flabbergasted. They don't even consider the freight rail system, which is massive, works well, is already built and fully operational, and energy-efficient.

maxutils said...

Just wanted to add exclamation points to you commentary ... this was possibly the most idiotic ballot initiative ever passed by Californians, and that really says something. The tragedy is how much we've already spent in preliminaries that have led nowhere. And in a best case scenario, the high speed rail would take about 8 hours to go from NoCal to SoCal, for about 100 bucks .... which you can do in a car. Or in an hour, on Southwest. California voters frustrate me so much, it hurts. But it takes so little to get an initiative on the ballot, and passed if it sounds good ... add a corporate interest, or a politician (Diane Feinstein, in this case ... her husband is making a killing on this) and it passes. The initiative process was designed to correct vital problems that the legislature would not address. That's not how it is now.

allen (in Michigan) said...

Looks like a good lesson in support of the Founding Fathers suspicion of direct democracy - you only have to convince enough of the electorate on one day and you've made some law.