Politics & Government

Dan Walters: Big issues still dog fast train

The low-speed effort to build a high-speed rail system is switching tracks again.

The previous “business plan” envisioned initially linking the San Joaquin Valley – where preliminary construction is already underway – to Los Angeles.

A revised version, released last week, shifts to first connecting the valley with the San Francisco Bay Area, terming it “a clear path” to completion.

It’s anything but clear.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority says the northern segment is easier and cheaper to build than the southern segment, which would involve very extensive and very expensive tunneling. And that’s probably true as far as it goes.

However, it’s also true that routing the 200-mile-per-hour train through Southern California’s San Fernando Valley had drawn sharp criticism from its largely Latino residents on the politically toxic grounds of environmental justice.

While the bullet train has fallen out of favor with Californians of all stripes, eight years after voters narrowly approved a $9.95 billion bond issue, conceptual support appears to be stronger in the Bay Area.

Beyond all of that, the project – one that Jerry Brown clearly hopes will be a legacy of his second governorship – still faces many other political, legal and financial issues.

The new plan indirectly concedes that the project is not likely to receive any substantial federal aid beyond the few billion dollars already committed.

However, it says the northern segment can be financed with a combination of bond money, the existing federal aid and a hefty share of the “cap-and-trade” fees imposed on carbon dioxide emissions.

However, those fees still face a legal challenge from business groups that they are taxes and therefore must be approved by a two-thirds legislative vote. It puts the Brown administration in the awkward position of arguing in court that the fees are not meant to raise revenues while counting on them to finance a multibillion-dollar project.

Although the fees are, by law, meant to be spent on programs that reduce carbon emissions, the CHSRA’s own data project that the bullet train would have almost no effect on auto travel, the prime source of those emissions. And the Legislature’s budget adviser has opined that construction would actually increase emissions.

Moreover, the authority for the fees expires in just four years, yet the revised business plan assumes that they would be imposed and available indefinitely.

Nor is the bond money a sure thing. Just days before the revised plan was issued, the administration was in court, defending a lawsuit by San Joaquin Valley opponents of the project alleging that the proposed project violates several conditions voters adopted in the bond measure.

Sale of the bonds has been delayed while the suit, which casts a cloud on their legality, makes its way through the courts.

Public support for the project has been dwindling steadily, polls indicate, as its cost has grown by tens of billions of dollars over what the bond measure projected and as other public works deficiencies have become more evident.

Fundamentally, it makes no sense to spend so much money, whatever its source, on a project for which there is little or no demonstrated need, while our roadway system deteriorates for lack of maintenance and while drought underscores the abject neglect of our water supply.