California House Dems bullet train ploy: How it could backfire

On Wednesday, a day after the Peer Review Group put out a damning assessment of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, eight members of California’s Democratic congressional delegation endorsed a request from House Republicans that the federal Government Accountability Office take an independent look at the state project. So are House Dems from the Golden State trying to kill the boondoggle by seeking one more negative assessment of it? Well, no. A look at their letter to the GAO shows they are actually trying to reframe the debate to make it about subsidies that other transportation infrastructure has gotten. But if the GAO lives up to its reputation, the ploy just might backfire — in glorious fashion. Glorious, at least, if you believe the bullet train is the nuttiest thing this side of Metta World Peace.

The request for a “comprehensive GAO review of California High-Speed Rail” was orchestrated by Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno. According to a press release from his office ….

The letter urges GAO to provide transparency and oversight of California’s high-speed rail project by consulting with an array of expert witnesses whose views were left out of previous reviews, like the one conducted by the California Legislature’s Legislative Analyst’s Office in May.   ….

Furthermore, in order to prepare a comprehensive review of the project, we request the study include:

* The use of the federal definition of high-speed rail (“nonhighway ground transportation…which is reasonably expected to reach sustained speeds of more than 125 miles per hour” [49 USC Sec. 26105]) when comparing the California high-speed rail project costs and viability to other high speed rail projects in the United States. …

* A comparison of the federal, state and local government subsidies required for the operation and maintenance of other modes of transportation, including by locomotive, airplane, and car, available to travelers in California.

So it’s plain that what California House Dems want is a GAO report that points out lots of transportation is heavily subsidized and that a bullet train that goes 125 mph is good enough. But the problem for this argument is that state law specifically says the state bullet train can’t get any government subsidies beyond the initial $9.95 billion authorized by state voters in 2008 and that the bullet train has to go 220 mph between San Francisco and Los Angeles — an amazingly specific thing to write into law. It may have helped sell voters on the project, but now it’s one more reason it will likely never get built, no matter what the GAO opines about federal standards for high-speed rail.

In the bigger picture, though, the problem for Costa and California’s House Dems is that the GAO is not a potted plant. Like California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, it has a reputation as a straight shooter. And if the GAO does its job on California’s bullet-train project, it will finally put the spotlight on the least-appreciated, least-publicized part of this fiasco: The project doesn’t just flagrantly, fragrantly break state law. It flagrantly, fragrantly breaks federal rules for use of stimulus funds on transportation projects. To recycle what I’ve written before …

These rules, published in the Federal Register on June 23, 2009, say that state applications must stand up after being subjected to a “rigorous analysis.” The key factors of this analysis involved the “financial plan (capital and operating),” the “reasonableness of financial estimates” and the “availability of operating financial support” and “quality of planning process” for proposed projects.

If that “rigorous analysis” really happened, how did California’s project get a dime? Its “financial plan (capital and operating)” has been called unrealistic and illegal by the LAO. The “reasonableness of financial estimates” from the CHSRA has been trashed by the LAO and many other outside experts. The same holds for the “availability of operating financial support.” As for the “quality of planning process” for the bullet train, it’s been so poor that the Legislature wants to strip the rail authority of its oversight of the project and give it to another agency!

It’s hard to imagine the LAO ignoring all this. David Siders of the Sac Bee may be under the impression the bullet train has been on the rebound since it put its new business plan out in November, but not the rest of the world.

So eight California House Dems likely endorsed what will end up being one more outside trashing of the bullet train. Good. Let’s all enjoy beating up on this farce while we can. We’ll miss it when it’s gone.

Or at least I will. It is a fodder figure without compare.


One thought on “California House Dems bullet train ploy: How it could backfire

  1. They also want us and the GAO to forget that unlike other infrastructure projects, this project was never intended to be a pay-as-you-go project. This and other expectations were clearly explained in Alan Lowenthal’s Senate Budget Committee’s June 2008 Report on HSR so that the voters would understand the intent of the bond measure going into the polls that November. “The
    Authority’s underlying assumption is that the demand for high-speed rail in California is so strong that it will attract a private consortium with the resources to design, construct, finance, and operate the high-speed project under the terms of a long term franchise.”

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