The Shaky Case for High-Speed Rail

Rail supporters in California keep chugging ahead despite a court rebuke.

A superior court’s recent smack-down of California’s high-speed-rail project raises provocative questions not only about the future of the $68-billion-plus train, but about the integrity of the initiative process.

Do the guarantees in ballot initiatives mean anything after voters have approved them? Or do initiatives offer “carte blanche,” whereby officials can take the concept approved at the ballot box and do whatever they choose with it?

Ruling on a lawsuit against the rail project brought by Kings County and some residents, Judge Michael Kenny agreed last week that key parts of the current rail plan don’t conform to Proposition 1A, the 2008 initiative authorizing nearly $10 billion in state bonds to fund the beginnings of a rapid train line to connect the Bay Area with Los Angeles.

The judge said the rail authority “abused its discretion,” but Gov. Jerry Brown declared that it was full speed ahead, despite the setback.

Few observers seemed surprised by the ruling. Even a father of high-speed rail in California, former judge and Sen. Quentin Kopp, provided expert testimony stating that the current rail plan is so “distorted” it is contrary to the one approved by voters.

For example, Prop. 1A’s language required that the state identify all sources of funds for the 290-mile “Initial Operating Section” of the system, and also complete necessary environmental clearances for that section. The authority couldn’t do that, but said it could comply with requirements for what it called the “Initial Construction Section” — a shorter rail segment that couldn’t initially carry high-speed trains.

But the judge nixed that concoction and noted that the rail authority is relying on “theoretical possibilities” for funding, rather than “sources of funds reasonably expected to be available.” The authority has been unable to lure private investment as promised, and additional federal funding is unlikely to be forthcoming given opposition in Congress.

The second phase of the lawsuit will deal with other ways in which the rail plan may diverge from the initiative’s promises, which won’t be good news for rail supporters. Prop. 1A promised that rail would not require operating subsidies. It also promised a 2 hour and 40 minute trip from downtown Los Angeles to downtown San Francisco.
Subsidies are a given. The promised train time became a virtual impossibility after the authority embraced a so-called “blended” plan in which the system would share rail lines with commuter trains in the big urban areas. Supporters built a house of cards. If they create a line that will meet time promises, they obliterate their financial promises and vice versa.

“They promised what they hoped they could do rather than what they could prove they could do,” said Adrian Moore of the libertarian Reason Foundation, and an expert witness in the case. The goal was to win over voters.

After Kenny’s ruling, however, Brown said, “As we speak we’re spending money. We’re moving ahead.” Right before the ruling, the rail authority signed a nearly $1 billion design-build contract, and the agency is advertising high-paid job openings. It’s using eminent domain to acquire land, which has prompted Assembly Republicans on Wednesday to call for an audit.

“It’s like the law be damned,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Rail supporters say the judge didn’t halt the project, but called for another hearing to consider the remedy and that they are in compliance with the direction from the Legislature. The judge said he would leave funding matters in the hands of the Legislature, which opens the possibility of a new tax or a diversion of funds from the cap-and-trade system aimed at reducing greenhouse gases. Voters probably never counted on those possibilities.

Robert Cruickshank, writing in a pro-rail blog, took heart that “Brown, a shoo-in for re-election next year, is determined to move ahead.” But at what cost?

The rail authority is not only following the Jerry Brown ignore-the-courts model. It also is following the Willie Brown ignore-the-taxpayers model. The former San Francisco mayor wrote in a July column regarding public-works projects: “Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

Call me Pollyanna, but shouldn’t we expect officials to be honest with voters, respect taxpayers, follow the law as approved and then bring any public project into conformity with the decision of the courts?

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  • Anomalous||

    The pic needs alt-text about his aura not frowning.

  • Aresen||

    Alt-text: "And he passed his hands over the desert and brought forth High Speed Rail.

    And the High Speed Rail went nowhere.

    And the tide of red ink flowed forth."

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  • some guy||

    Who needs high-speed rail when you can have a hyperloop?

  • Sevo||

    It appears the judge said: 'You're breaking the law, but go ahead anyhow.'
    It therefore appears the judicial branch has become a sort of an advisory committee to the executive branch. I don't think that was the intent.

  • sarcasmic||

    "The courts have made their decision, now let them enforce it."

  • Brandon||

    "Shaky" seems generous.

  • Xenohippus||

    We need to cut out some of the red tape, burdensome regulations, and activist judges that are hindering these project. I'm sure a conservative or libertarian legal foundation would be happy to assist.

  • Curtisls87||

    This boondoggle just won't end. I voted against it at every turn, and yet, here we are. Governor Brown, have you no shame?

  • Square||

    The real trouble, I think, is California voters. As a Californian myself, born and bred, I've also voted against this dumbass idea every time it's come up, and I've passionately argued with all of my progressive friends that it won't work, it won't be anywhere near as cheap as they say, they don't yet even have a route identified, etc.

    Mr. Brown, however, knows his People. From what I've seen in my discussions with people is that the (however slight) majority of voters in California really do seem to want this stupid thing, and really don't seem to be fazed by how much it costs (and let's face it, to most people the original price tag was essentially "a whole bunch of money").

    I think for most the project is essentially a monument to California's commitment to "Environmentalism," the way the Great Pyramids were a monument to Egypt’s commitment to its pharaohs, and there's little real expectation that it will serve much purpose in the end. I fully expect its supporters to be unsurprised when it winds up costing twice as much as they thought, needing to be subsidized, and proving to be as slow as the current train, and I don’t expect they’ll be any less happy with it.

    In sum, I think Jerry has calculated that he can defy the courts because he is confident that at least 51% of California voters are unbothered by the court's complaints and believe the Goodness of the project outweighs all other concerns.

    Plus, the Unions want the Project. Bad.

  • Xenohippus||

    Plus, the Unions want the Project. Bad.

    Yep, the unions built the Golden Gate Bridge:

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americ.....e-workers/

    and look what a disaster that's turned out to be.

  • Square||

    I think the Unions will do a perfectly fine job building the thing, don't get me wrong. That really doesn't have anything to with whether or not it was a good idea in the first place.

    My point was just that the Unions' concerns are always taken very seriously in California, which is another angle from which Jerry can count on public support.

  • Sevo||

    "My point was just that the Unions' concerns are always taken very seriously in California, which is another angle from which Jerry can count on public support."

    There's an alternative explanation:
    The unions are moonbeam's boss; he dances to their tunes. It's what got him elected 'way back when and what continues to do so, and what gets other dems elected.
    There is no effort to control what the unions demand in CA; they get what they want and deliver the dem votes. Nothing else matters in CA politics.

  • Sevo||

    Oh, and to provide more evidence, the judiciary stated clearly that moonbeam's choo-choo is illegal, but they told him to keep at it anyhow.
    It is not a railroad; it is a hiring hall on wheels.

  • Square||

    You say tomayto, I say tomahto, but I can definitely say the view from the ground in California says that this is no top-down conspiracy between Union bosses and the Governer. Californians, by and large, LIKE unions, especially those who don't deal with them directly, which is most of the actual voters.

    I would absolutely disagree that "nothing else matters in CA politics." Environmentalism is as important to the CA left as Unions. Environmentalists and unions have never been the best of friends, as the former tend to put the latter out of work, and the latter tend to be more socially conservative people who may care less about pollution.

    What better project to unite these two than an unbelievably expensive, long term construction project being done in the name of saving the environment?

  • Sevo||

    "You say tomayto, I say tomahto [...] Californians, by and large, LIKE unions, especially those who don't deal with them directly, which is most of the actual voters."

    Not sure the voters 'like unions'; I'm damn sure the dems bossed by the unions have plenty of money from the unions to push the re-election campaigns.

  • Sevo||

    Oh, and can't disagree about the greenies; fundies nearly as ignorant as Xians, Foodies or Muslims.

  • LarryA||

    Trains that will be manned by union workers forever.

  • JWatts||

    That's a very good post, Square.

    I think for most the project is essentially a monument to California's commitment to "Environmentalism," the way the Great Pyramids were a monument to Egypt’s commitment to its pharaohs

    I think you nailed it with this. The issue is immune to logic, because it's a religious issue.

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  • InlineSkate||

    This project will go way over cost, won't come close to the final project, won't have the ridership predicted, will take decades to build, will ultimately cost north of 100bn.

    What exactly is appealing about this project?

  • meta||

    There's nothing appealing about doing this project, which is exactly why they're doing this project. It will only truly help the unions extort more money from the peoples via government. Can't wait for the "We have a train!" celebrations even though they have been around forever.

  • triclops||

    You are foolishly looking at all the unimportant stuff.

    As Square and Sevo discussed above, it is one of the few ways greenies and unions can have something that they both want. That is mana from heaven to the D's in CA.

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