The McClatchy/Sacramento Bee coverage of the House transportation committee hearing Thursday on the state’s bullet train project was just clueless. Here’s an example: Some of the congressional resistance seen Thursday appears to be manifestly partisan, as Republicans find a way to oppose an Obama administration priority. Some skepticism seems more rooted in regional competition for funding, and this is not just from Northeastern lawmakers. One Southern California Democrat, Rep. Janet Napolitano, D-Santa Fe Springs, worried Thursday that high-speed rail could “take away from local projects” that might improve much-needed mass transit in her district. The possibility that the resistance was based on the idea that it’s a bad project? It wasn’t even acknowledged.
So much for what the LAO has had to say, or the state inspector general, or the Institute for Transportation.
Awfully weak work from Sac Bee/McClatchy’s Michael Doyle. He didn’t even have to read the West Coast newspapers. He could have just read The Washington Post:
Things just went from bad to worse for high-speed passenger rail in California. After the Golden State’s voters approved a $9 billion bullet-train bond issue in 2008, officials said they could build an 800-mile system by 2020, for $35.7 billion. The cost projection now, as issued by the state Nov. 1: $98.5 billion, with a completion date of 2033.
Time to pull the plug, right? Not according to Gov. Jerry Brown (D). The new “business plan is solid and lays the foundation for a 21st-century transportation system,” he said. Equally upbeat, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood offered Mr. Brown his congratulations on “a sound, step-by-step strategy for building a world-class high-speed rail network.”
This is unreal. Apart from the bond issue and $3.6 billion in federal funds already in hand, the cash-strapped state hasn’t credibly identified a source of funds for the system. The new report basically repeats previous assertions that, if California builds, federal and private-sector dollars will come. This is wishful thinking in an era of massive federal deficits, and if the opportunities for the private sector were really so great, where are the companies clamoring to invest?
Actually, the gigantic cost estimate amounts to an indirect confirmation of the doubts voiced in several independent analyses, which have focused on not only the rail plan’s mythical funding but also its high ridership projections — and the attendant risk that California will get stuck with expensive operating subsidies as well as billions in debt service.
Of course, that risk would occur only in the decreasingly probable event that California actually finishes the railroad. A more plausible scenario is that the state manages to construct merely a line between two points in the rural Central Valley before its cash peters out.
Why? The Obama administration has made clear that the state will lose $2.3 billion in federal funds unless it starts construction by October 2012. The money comes from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the stimulus bill — and that law’s purpose was to get people to work, pronto. The deadline is inflexible.
Alas, there is only one place where the state could finish the necessary environmental impact statements and other bureaucratic requirements before the use-it-or-lose-it date: a thinly populated 130-mile stretch of flatland that starts just north of Fresno and ends just north of Bakersfield.
The Washington Post nails it. Odd how obvious it is to the Post that this is a dead parrot, while the L.A. Times’ edit page still is pushing the boondoggle, and the Sac Bee’s news section suggests criticism is either partisan or parochial, not fact-based.