Gas-tax repeal backers’ next target: high-speed rail

For years, critics of California’s troubled high-speed rail effort have talked about bring the issue back to voters, in hopes of putting a halt to the multi-billion dollar project.

Now, the folks who brought Proposition 6, the unsuccessful gas-tax repeal to the ballot in November, have a green-light to gather petitions for a wide-ranging initiative that not only would take responsibility for state highway construction away from Caltrans and give it to local governments — but also end the high-speed rail project.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s office announced Friday that Carl DeMaio, a conservative radio talk show host and former San Diego City Council member, and other backers of the the proposed initiative have six months to gather nearly 600,000 signatures from registered voters to qualify the measure for the ballot.

This Dec. 6, 2017 file photo shows one of the elevated sections of the high-speed rail under construction in Fresno. RICH PEDRONCELLI AP

The signatures would need to be submitted to county election officials by May 28. If it qualifies, the measure would appear on the November 2020 general election ballot.

“California’s taxpayers already pay some of the highest gas taxes in the country but are forced to suffer with some of the worst roads and infrastructure in the country because politicians have diverted, stolen and wasted the funds,” a preamble to the ballot measure states. “California taxpayers desire to end the diversion of tax funds that should properly go to fund roads and infrastructure.”

In addition to channeling transportation funds away from Caltrans and to cities and counties, the measure calls for terminating funds for high-speed rail.

“The state government shall cease all activities on the California High-Speed Rail project carried out or funded in whole or in part by public funds,” the measure states. “The Governor may only expend such minimal funds as is necessary to effect the orderly and complete termination of the project no later than June 30, 2021. The Governor and the Legislature shall not take any action that would have the effect of extending activity or supporting the successful completion of this project.”

Any unspent money from Proposition 1A, a $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond measure approved by California voters in 2008, would be redirected from planning and construction of the bullet-train project to retire debt from issuing and selling the bonds.

It’s uncertain how the measure, if passed, would relate to contracts the state currently has for three construction sections underway in the central San Joaquin Valley for about 120 miles of the rail route from Madera to Bakersfield.

Earlier this month, after California State Auditor Elaine Howle issued a report highly critical of the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s decision-making and contract oversight, Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, renewed his longstanding call for the issue to come back before voters.

“It started with the voters, it’s going to have to end with voters,” Patterson told The Bee. “The only pathway that I see is to be truthful with where we are and ask the people what we do next.”

The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.
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