Seldom has public opinion and expert judgment been more unified than in its opposition to the California high-speed rail project. The project has been criticized by its own Peer Review Group, the Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO), the California State Auditor, the State Treasurer and a group of independent experts (Enthoven, Grindley, Warren et al.). In addition, the bullet train has come under severe criticism by influential state legislators and by members of the state's congressional delegation. Equally damaging to the project's future prospects have been two public opinion surveys showing that California voters have turned solidly against the project, and the opposition of virtually all of California's newspapers, including The Orange County Register, whose latest editorial we reprint below.
Editorial: Bullet train becoming "Moonbeam Express" (OC Register, Feb 1, 2012)
Gov. Jerry Brown wants to use anti-global-warming carbon taxes to fund California's much-maligned high-speed rail project.
In a brazen denial of the obvious, Gov. Jerry Brown now insists the proposed California high-speed rail can be built for much less than its own business plan stipulates, and wants to use anti-global-warming carbon taxes to underwrite the proposal, whose price tag has nearly tripled in the three years since voters approved it.
The governor seems intent on demonstrating how California's state government has burdened taxpayers with mounting debt, while overspending to create consecutive years of budget deficits. The rail project has been dubbed "the train to nowhere" because the only portion close to being built would link relatively sparsely populated Central Valley towns and no metropolitan areas. Perhaps with Mr. Brown's new foolish insistence, it should be christened the Moonbeam Express.
Since the rail proposal appeared on the 2008 ballot, it has been widely and legitimately criticized in detailed analyses by the rail project's own Peer Review Group, the state auditor, treasurer, Legislative Analyst's Office, local governments including Tulare, Madera and Kings counties and the city of Palo Alto, numerous state and federal lawmakers from both parties and studies by UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation and the Reason Foundation. These highly unfavorable critiques reflect many of the criticisms the Register Editorial Board has raised since the project was proposed.
In only three years, the train's estimated cost has increased from $33 billion to $98.5 billion in the latest version of its own ever-changing business plan.
Voters approved only $9.9 billion in bonds based on the rest coming from Washington and local governments along the route, and private investors. Washington has provided about $3 billion and not another dime has materialized or been pledged. Meanwhile, the estimated completion of the original phase of the project, from San Francisco to Anaheim, has been extended 14 years beyond the original estimate of 2020.
Ridership estimates are unrealistic, meaning trains can't operate solely on ticket revenue as required by the initiative. Costs, even at their current highest level, are certain to increase, and the needed additional funding sources are not forthcoming. Given hostility in Congress to the project, more money from Washington, which is grappling with its own massive deficits and debts, won't be seen in the foreseeable future.
State Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, introduced a bill Monday to put the high-speed rail proposal back on the November ballot so voters can de-authorize selling the $9.9 billion in bonds.
The Register has urged this ill-conceived and increasingly untenable project be resubmitted to voters. Thankfully, for the most part, bonds remain unsold. There is no reason taxpayers should assume billions more debt --- with annual interest payments of up to $1 billion --- when the likelihood is remote the train ever will be built, despite the governor's strained assurance.
Moreover, state Sen. Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, notes that the governor's proposed new revenue stream --- carbon taxes created by the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act--- is another hoped-for, rather than assured, solution. "The state's cap-and-trade program is not yet in operation, and revenue estimates of $1 billion per year are unreliable and unsubstantiated," Ms. Harkey said. "Relying on projected revenues that fall short is the key reason why our state deficit continues to explode year after year. To rush this project forward, just using up the $3.5 billion of federal funds, with the hope of an additional funding mechanism based on guesswork, is irresponsible."