No, Joe, the bullet train is still a joke even if it starts in San Diego

Journalist/blogger/think tanker/author Joe Mathews has a piece up at Fox & Hounds Daily on Wednesday that purports to offer a way to revive the rapidly metastasizing bullet train project and shut up one of its whiniest critics. Sorry, Joe, even if the first segment is San Diego-to-Los Angeles, it still runs afoul of state law, federal rules and basic economics — and even if the bullet train were a convenient walk from my front door, I’d still loathe it for how it symbolizes the collective stupidity of the Sacramento media-political establishment.

Brown needs to rethink the shape and design of the system itself. Judging by the state of the state, he’s currently continuing on the course of starting with a stretch of high-speed rail in the Central Valley.

There are reasons for doing that – the biggest one being the federal funding on the table. But for all the money and business plan problems the high-speed rail project, its biggest problem is public support. Such support is slipping in recent polls. And if the public won’t support high-speed rail, it has no hope of being built. Building the first link in a less-populated area of California won’t help that. …

So what would be better? Brown and his allies on the high-speed rail project should move heaven and earth to start the project in a heavily populated area of the state.

Where? Well, the two biggest cities in the state are Los Angeles and San Diego. Why not start by connecting them?

There’s a long tradition of riding the rails between the two cities. It’s a stretch in which high-speed rail would have a huge advantage over the roads (you’re lucky if you can complete that trip in three hours). And there isn’t much competition with flights – since few people take the plane between the two cities. Plus, maybe an LA to San Diego link would shut up this particularly outspoken San Diego-based critic of high-speed rail.

Yes, the hyperlink is to calwhine, for which I thank Joe. But Joe, yunno, I really do think it is a joke at an even more fundamental level than just questioning starting the project in the Central Valley.

California voters approved the project in November 2008 without being able to review the business plan they were promised they’d get to see before going to the polls. The plan came out within days after Prop. 1A narrowly passed — and it offered the earliest possible evidence that all along bullet train planners have known the project could not be made compatible with 1A, the state law that provided $9.95 billion in bond seed money.

From the start, the planners knew private investors couldn’t be attracted without ridership or revenue guarantees that were tantamount to guarantees of taxpayer subsidies if the train system wasn’t as popular as expected — subsidies that were illegal under Proposition 1A. No subsidies, no private investors. No private investors, no bullet train.

Think about the stunning idiocy this reflects: The state of California has been pursuing this for years even though the people in charge — the people who knew the numbers best — knew it didn’t add up, or at least that it didn’t add up legally.

Changing the first segment to the much more logical San Diego-Los Angeles link changes none of this — or the totally ignored federal requirement that federal funds can only be spent if the bullet train project has credible financing and business plans.

It has neither, and that won’t change no matter where the first line is built.

Just because the media and the Obama administration don’t acknowledge that federal rules on stimulus spending are relevant doesn’t meant those rules aren’t relevant. Federal funding shouldn’t be wasted — especially if we’re talking about $3 billion-plus that supposedly is protected by rules guaranteeing taxpayers that it will be spent prudently.

But thanks for the link, Joe, and thanks for coming on KOGO with me so many times, and good luck finding the missing “t” in your last name.

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