Tuesday, January 31, 2012


A high-speed railroad takes a long time to stop—not because the imaginary vehicle travels so fast and carries so many passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles and points south, but rather because career politicians like Jerry Brown are determined to build legacies for themselves, come hell or high-water.

The governor’s recent State of the State Address was vintage Moonbeam. Brown claimed credit for making serious spending cuts while simultaneously calling for tax increases—including a previously announced half-cent boost in the sales tax rate.

Most egregiously, the governor clung passionately to the whitest elephant in the budget—a high-speed rail system whose Phase I estimated costs have already mushroomed to around 110 billion dollars, give or take ten billion.

The California High Speed Rail Authority’s own Peer Review group recently offered this grim assessment of the project’s feasibility: “…we cannot overemphasize the fact that moving ahead on the HSR project without credible sources of adequate funding, without a definitive business model, without a strategy to maximize the independent utility and value to the State, and without the appropriate management resources, represents an immense financial risk on the part of the State of California.”

Put in plain language, the group says it doesn’t know where the money to build this system will come from, and it doesn’t see a business plan that demonstrates a clear benefit to the state. What they see as likely (“an immense financial risk”) is that the railroad will become the costliest white elephant in the state’s history.

As General Custer might have said at Little-Big Horn, “Outside of those problems, everything is fine.”

This Peer Review assessment echoes many prior analyses including those of the Bureau of State Audits, the UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies, and the Reason Foundation. Even Democrats, including Treasurer Bill Lockyer and a trio of state Senators headed by Alan Lowenthal have issued withering criticisms.

Were Governor Brown more concerned about the state’s fiscal welfare than his own legacy, he’d support Assemblywoman Diane Harkey’s bill, AB 1455, which halts state debt funding for the high-speed rail project. Instead, Brown holds a gun to the head of Californians and pretends the only alternatives are tax hikes or drastic cuts in education.

This bit of political theater reminds me of a scene in “Blazing Saddles” where the new black sheriff in a bigoted frontier town holds a gun to his own head and then threatens to shoot his hostage if town-folks don’t holster their weapons. The ruse works.

There is a more logical and poll-popular option for Governor Brown: Shoot the white elephant.

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