High-Speed Rail: Dead and Loving It

All of California owes a debt to Fiona Ma. The San Francisco-based speaker of the State Assembly, an implacable foe of rubber ducks and recorded music, has scored an unintentional victory as one of the major authors of Proposition 1A, the state’s 2008 high-speed rail bond initiative. Thanks to the wording of the law, the California High Speed Rail project now may die a quiet death. 

Last Wednesday, the California Senate voted to place the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA, which is currently a standalone agency) under the authority of the state’s Business, Transportation and Housing Agency. On Friday, the state Assembly passed a bill that would demote the CHSRA to an “advisory body” while shifting control of the project to a “Department of High-Speed Trains.” 

The creation of a brand new bureaucracy is ominous. But these complementary legislative moves, by a Democratic legislature under a Democratic governor, have all the characteristics of a face-saving admission that the Golden State’s high-speed rail project – the last best hope of President Obama and Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood – is either dead or in a persistent vegetative state. 

Some move like this was inevitable after last month’s report by the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, which laid out the project’s failings in such excruciating detail that at the time I called it the death of the U.S. high speed rail project. 

Clearly, the high speed rail hope isn’t quite dead yet. But the California plan, which would have seen a “train to nowhere” begin construction next year between the remote Central Valley towns of Corcoran and Borden, is in dire condition. The Corcoran-Borden route was selected by the Federal Rail Authority specifically for the relative ease with which the state could roll over rusticated local landowners who lack the resources to mount a challenge like the one that has emerged on the wealthy San Francisco peninsula. 

That isn’t working out, however, as locals along the Corcoran-Borden alignment balk at the prospect of a 150mph public transit option chugging through their almond groves. While legal challenges may not be successful, they would delay a project on which both D.C. and Sacramento had been hoping to break ground in 2012. Federal funding for the project was originally contingent on the state’s having construction underway by September of next year. That condition was nixed when California agreed to the train-to-nowhere alignment, but the feds are still in danger of missing a 2017 deadline for spending ARRA Stimulus funds. 

There’s another wrinkle. The legislature has so far gone along with the Legislative Analyst’s recommendations, and those recommendations include scrapping Corcoran-Borden altogether, which would mean the September 2012 deadline waiver goes away too. A new deal can always be struck with the federal government, but it’s unlikely to be struck quickly. 

As if that’s not enough, it turns out we won’t always have Palmdale. The original plan was for the southern leg of the HSR alignment to follow the general route of Interstate 5, but a few years ago that plan was scrapped in favor of a track going through the Mojave Desert and the Antelope Valley into Sylmar. (Sorry for the geography dump.) Now the route may be switched back to the “Grapevine” again, after a report has shown that the Antelope Valley route would require rebuilding of the California Aqueduct and/or altering a dam. 

These logistical hurdles are small potatoes, however, compared to the grueling government competition known as Da Coughing Up of Da Funds. Although California voters approved $9.9 billion in new transportation bond debt in 2008, the bond funds can’t be used for operation of the railroad, only construction. There is no credible plan for Corcoran-Borden to be a self-sufficient line. For that matter, there is no credible plan for the entire San Francisco-Sacramento-San-Diego high speed network to be self-sufficient. But even my old buddies at the L.A. Times editorial board have conceded that ridership on the train-to-nowhere leg would be “slight.” 

And it may turn out that bond funds will not be available – legally at any rate – even to build the train. Which brings us back to our debt to Fiona Ma and her Prop 1a co-authors. In the high speed rail initiative [pdf] that voters approved, Section 2704.08.(c)(2)(J) requires the plan to certify that "the planned passenger service by the authority in the corridor or usable segment thereof will not require a local, state, or federal operating subsidy." Even more directly, subsection (d)(2)(D) orders: "Prior to committing any proceeds of bonds...the authority shall have approved and concurrently submitted...a report or reports...indicating that...the planned passenger train service to be provided by the authority, or pursuant to its authority, will not require operating subsidy." 

California will continue to trickle away general fund money on high speed rail. Since the HSR initiative got underway in 1996, the Golden State has managed to disappear a quarter of a billion dollars without laying any track. In a floor speech, Assemblywoman Diane L. Harkey (R-Dana Point) argues that even the new bureaucratic deep freeze is too good a fate for the misguided HSR project, while the serene Ma fails to keep order in the people’s chamber. 

Still, better a trickle of wasted money than a torrent. Right now it is probable Californians will be spared a massive new debt issuance for a few years. And all Americans may be spared having to "invest" a few billion dollars for a train that now looks unlikely to be built.

Update: Forget everything I said. The mayors of Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, Sacramento and Fresno write in a joint letter that the "second guessing" has to stop: "California and the United States need high-speed rail, so let's keep going." Who can argue with logic like that? 

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  • ||

    “Department of High-Speed Trains”

    California has have to have high-speed trains to justify having the department, right?

    Job security FTW!

  • ||

    No. You just need artist's renderings with a cool Blur filter effect applied to the background.

  • Jim||

    Is Representative Ma married? And if so, is she open to a certain moral ambiguity on the subject?

  • ||

    Wouldn't "Ma" be her first name?

  • Jim||

    No, I believe she anglicized this. I have a hard time believing someone's family name is "Fiona".

  • ||

    Are you sure? Because I can imagine you want to have wild state representative sex and scream out "MA! MA! OH, I'M COMING, MA!"

  • Jim||

    Nonononono, you don't give her a warning like that, because then she has time to turn her head away.

  • ||

    wild state representative sex

    mmmmm, *drool*

  • Reformed Republican||

    Mu-mu-mu-mu Ma Fiona!

  • ||

    The Knack, right?

  • Ska||

    Good girls don't.....but Fiona does.

  • ||

    Apparently.

    And it's a teenage sadness
    Everyone has got to taste.
    An in-between age madness
    That you know you can't erase
    Till she's sitting on your face.

  • Ska||

    ...and it hurts!

  • Ray||

    Scottie doesn't know, that Fiona and me, do it in my van every Sunday...

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    She's Bajoran, but had her nose ridges surgically altered after the Kardashian occupation of Coastal California. Surname first.

  • Jim||

    As long as she doesn't get all preachy at me about the stinkin Prophets, it's all good.

  • ||

    Thank you. People really need to make more Kardashian/Cardassian jokes.

    (Aside: as kids, my sisters and I were convinced the third grade teacher was a Bajoran. Turns out she was just a lesbian.)

  • ||

    convinced the third grade teacher was a Bajoran. Turns out she was just a lesbian

    Distinction without a difference.

  • ||

    She even had the earring and Kira-ish hair, only spikier.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    People really need to make more Kardashian/Cardassian jokes.

    Indeed.

  • Hugh Akston||

    When the Kardashians pulled out of Fresno, they didn't know it would someday have a high speed shortcut between San Diego and San Francisco.

  • ||

    oh, SNAP.

  • Spoonman.||

    I fucking love H&R.

  • yonemoto||

    she's not just bajoran, she's a bajoran horse.

  • yonemoto||

    (for the asian-challenged:
    http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/
    )

  • yonemoto||

    clearly the squirrels are asian-challenged.

  • David||

    Details, Details, Details. Tim, you need a weekend retreat with David Lazarus to rediscover the promise of HSR.

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    What's frustrating is that the operating subsidy catch has been known for quite a while (Chris Reed pounded on this back in the day before his blogged was nixed by the U-T). All the money spent since has been *knowingly* flushed down the toilet.

  • Nancy Pelosi||

    That's a feature, not a bug

  • Some Call Me. . .Tim||

  • ||

    Yeah, but the CHSRA has gotten some Aeron chairs and a top-of-the-line espresso machine out of the deal.

  • Some Call Me. . .Tim||

    Coming to PBS: Thomas the high speed stimulus funded low emission tank engine and his friends.

  • sarcasmic||

    Who will do the voice now that George Carlin is pushing up daisies?

  • Some Call Me. . .Tim||

    Cheech Marin?

  • Fluffy||

    Any chance that the move to do away with the authority is itself an attempt to evade the language in Section 2704.08.(c)(2)(J)?

    "Hey, there's no authority any more. I guess that means we can just spend this money without that dumb study"?

  • GSL||

    I continue to appreciate your optimism, Tim, but I won't believe high-speed rail is dead until I see the corpse. If the HSR true believers aren't daunted by the fact that HSRA has spent $250 million to not build rail lines, or by the fact that it's only going to exist in the most godforsaken, isolated corner of the state, they aren't going to be daunted by anything.

  • A.G. Pym||

    @sarcasmic: Carlin never did do Thomas' voice, he was just another incarnation of Mr. Conductor. Ringo Starr played the first Conductor. He can just regenerate, like a Time Lord.

  • ||

    "Like" a Time Lord?

  • ||

    Are you suggesting that Mr. Conductor *is* a time lord? So it was him, not The Master, that the Face of Boe referred to when he told The Doctor that there was another?

  • ||

    Yes, but I'm pretty ignorant beyond knowing who the Master is and that Dr. Who is a Time Lord. I stopped watching at all when Tom Baker left the role.

  • Joe M||

    Hear hear. Never been as good without him.

  • sarcasmic||

    I wasn't aware that there were multiple conductors. New info.

    Since Matt Smith was shot and died before he could regenerate, is he the last Doctor?

  • ||

    my bet is on a "time is always in flux" resolution.

  • skr||

    didn't they change a bit of history by making the aliens visible?

  • Tim Cavanaugh||

    Don't forget Alec Baldwin as a withdrawal-suffering Mr. Conductor in the psychedelic head trip Thomas and the Magic Railroad.

  • Zeb||

    It was Shining Time Station, not Thomas the tank engine, wasn't it?

  • ||

    The folks fighting the train to nowhere need to find (or "find") an endangered specie or two along the proposed route, and it will be game over.

    Even without that, I wonder where the environmental impact statement is for that thing? I'm seeing habitat disruption, especially with those super-tall fences. What are they, afraid a Tyrannosaurus is going to bite their train?

  • ||

    Don't laugh, damn you. Dinosaur attacks are on the rise almost 15% this epoch.

  • ||

    So, what you're saying is that the safety measures for highspeed rail are insufficient to meat [sic] the modern threat of raptor attack?

  • Brett L||

    Isn't it raptor awareness month?

  • OO||

    after weiner & rail, im following bluto's advice to drink heavily.

  • OO||

    lol i no rite?

  • Invisible Finger||

    At this point, the farmland is the expensive real estate.

    I expect FedGov/CalGov to purchase bank-owned real-estate in the metros at 10-cents-on-the-dollar (a 50% premium over real value!) to make the trains go somewhere AND bail out the banks.

  • skr||

    value depends on the water rights of the farm though

  • PETE||

    From a liberal who reads this site mostly for your civil liberties stuff, I just want to say that your incessant coverage has caused me to change my mind on the issue, and declare HSR a fuck show.

    I am being serious. Snark below:

    I don't think I can ever go full-blown Libertarian as I am possessed of untenable traits like the capacity to empathize and good taste in literature, but you are making a difference!

  • REPETE||

    Stay here long enough and maybe your empathy will become real instead of veiled narcissism.

  • Progressives||

    Rebel scum!

  • Gilbert Martin||

    Try empathizing will all the people whose pockets are being picked by sanctimonious liberals trying to spin their incessent desire to volunteer other people's money for stuff as being "virtuous".

  • yonemoto||

    I wonder how many california state assemblyfolk volunteer their personal time for soup kitchens, homeless shelters, meals on wheels, et al.

  • Fiona Ma||

    We're too busy doing the will of the people! It's seriously hard work!

  • yonemoto||

    don't worry. Soon we will convert you on gun ownership and ending the Fed, too.

  • ||

    Good job, neocons! I guess you love it when China, Japan, and most of Europe are ahead of the US. You imbeciles. You cheer the spending of billions on war overseas, but spit at spending here at home to improve infrastructure. Liberal= Progressive.... Conservative= Regressive.

  • ||

    The only thing more progressive than traveling on the ground on pieces of welded steel towards a fixed destination would be...wagon trains?

  • JoshInHB||

    Canal Barges will win the future.

  • yonemoto||

  • Tim Cavanaugh||

    Glad you brought up China. I meant to include a reference to this report [pdf] from the China-hating neocons at Caixin. It turns out HSR is the same rich-people boondoggle it is in California, with massive cost overruns, "murky" finances and lines that are running nearly or (in one case) totally empty. The main difference is that communist China is actually trying to stop the corruption. Within a few months, nobody will be trying to shame American rail refuseniks with the example of forward-looking China.

  • skr||

    you're lost aren't you? I think you took a wrong turn at Albuquerque because there aren't any big supporters of wars of adventure round these here parts.

  • ||

    You stupid mf-ing f-tards! You don't care about "your pockets being picked" by the GOP for war, unpaid for medicare Part D, and tax cuts for billionaires. yet you piss and moan when we try to help those that actually NEED the fucking help. Hopefully you will die off like the dinosaurs that you are.

  • yonemoto||

    you stupid mf-ing f-tards! You don't care about "your dollars being devalued" by the Dems for the war, for bailing out banks, and paying off crony CEOs of companies like GM. Yet you piss and moan about increasing taxes when the poor are getting fucked by a compounding devaluation of the currency. Hopefully you will die off like the Archaeopterices that you are.

  • ||

    Modern liberals like HSR the same way that 1930s liberals (and Stalin) liked big dams.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    Yeah! Everyone here supported the wars and MC Part D!

    And everyone here DEFINITELY believes that allowing people to kee their own money is effectively picking my pocket.

    Go piss up a pole you statist fuck.

  • cynical||

    Uh, you didn't actually read this site when Bush was in office, did you?

    Not that Team's Blue's unfunded programs and bullshit wars of choice are any better. I know that most partisans are moral relativists, of course. Not the non-judgmental kind, mind you, more the kind where they define morally neutral based their enemies' conduct, as they perceive it.

  • skr||

    hahaha he thinks we're republicans. that's cute.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "tax cuts for billionares" constitiutes other people's "pockets being picked"?

    How is that exactly?

    Explaining to me how refraining from taking citizen #1's own money away from him constitutes citizen #2's "pocket being picked".

  • ||

    The mayors of Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, Sacramento and Fresno write in a joint letter that the "second guessing" has to stop: "California and the United States need high-speed rail, so let's keep going."

    Does a "joint letter" mean they smoked MJ before writing it?

  • ||

    Either that or a mutual masturbation session.

  • ||

    They should have gotten people excited about a San Diego to LA or LAX high speed train first, as San Diego airport has little support for expansion, and most international and non-stop SD to NY flights get so booked up. Many San Diego business people have to go to LAX to go to Switzerland, China, etc.

  • skr||

    you're fucking with me right? You are trying to justify HSR because you can't get a direct flight from SD to fucking Switzerland? Sorry to tell you dude but SD is a provincial bordertown. Deal with it.

  • ||

    Driving by car from SD to LA is fraught with peril and flights from SD to LAX are extremely expensive. People in SD need more transportation options to travel to LA and LAX, as well as up the coast. Can't they just build high speed rail tracks along the Amtrak ones?

  • mad libertarian guy||

    Or use their own fucking money to fund their travel needs/desires?

  • ||

    Do you live in California? If not, you should just mind your own business.

  • Jordan||

    Then stop spending my fucking money.

  • Bohica||

    That's pretty rich asking someone to pay your bills and then telling him to mind his own business when he objects to your extravagant tastes.

  • A Serious Man||

    Fraught with peril? Are you joking? I'm 19 and I've driven from Orange County to SD and found it a scenic, pleasant drive with traffic no worse than any other freeway. What, you're afraid the Marines at Camp Pendleton are going to shoot at you as you drive by?

  • skr||

    the amtrak route is so fucking expensive, it's not worth taking. And can't I have a little peril?

  • skr||

    i live in LA. Stop spending my fucking money you fucking douche.

  • BigBob||

    Fraught with peril? OK, the 405 sucks, but it's not that much worse than traffic in SD. Certainly not worth the billions of dollars it would cost to build and maintain.

  • CE||

    Besides, TARP money is fixing the 405. Well, not really, just adding a carpool lane and making us live with construction for a few years.

  • ||

    Further describe said peril, please.

  • Eponymous Bosch||

    http://seattletimes.nwsource.c.....in07m.html

    Apologies for the thread-jack.

  • The Man||

    You used the word "rusticated." I do not think it means what you think it means.

  • skr||

    "to go to or live in the country" I dont think he was using the King's english definition.

  • Tim Cavanaugh||

    As long as QEII is more than just a failed monetary stimulus campaign, it's the Queen's English.

  • Tim Cavanaugh||

    Random House fourth definition: "to make rustic, as persons or manners."

    Besides, it sounds more old-timey.

  • ||

    maby your lame reason brain is rusty and should be put in the grave asshole

  • ||

    "Fraught with peril?...I'm 19 and I've driven...found it a scenic, pleasant drive" A Serious Man|6.7.11 @ 7:59PM|#

    Hey kid, when I was 19 I rode a 'caboose hop' from Pueblo to Denver as 'dead crewman' (no duty). A 'caboose hop' is a freight train with no freight cars. Seven diesel/electric units with a caboose and we hit 90+ mph cruising down the grade to Denver. It's hard not to love railroads at 90+ mph, -super smooth ride. That was before Amtrak was allowed in CO. That was before cabooses were terminated. What I know about 90+ mph in a caboose is that reading a newspaper is much, much easier when you don't feel stupid cruising at painfully boring slow speeds of 50 or 60.

    (90 mph was 30 over speed limit for freight trains, but as I say, weren't no actual freight train, just a 'caboose hop' which shouldn't actually have to be bothered with stupid speed limits)

    (Note: When I say "love railroads" that doesn't mean love government railroads)

  • CE||

    Right now it is probable Californians will be spared a massive new debt issuance for a few years.

    Unfortunately, no. Californians will vote for the next big bond issue, like they always do. I guess they think someone else has to pay off the bonds, maybe the investors?

  • ||

    Well Timmy.. did daddy Kochs give you a little extra money this week to spew this BS out of your lame little teabagger mouth? Your pathetic little POS

  • Drax the Destroyer||

    After some stalkin...I mean...cough...researching of the milfy Fiona Ma, I found out she has a master's degree in taxation. Sweet lord satan...I knew deep down such things existed but, why in the seven hells would someone want to get a master's degree in taxation? What kind of sociopathic utilitarian mind does it take to even sit in a class called "The Fundamentals on how to tax the fucking idiots in this country"? What the hell do they study? Historical examples of taxes "working well"? Mathematical models that show the limit a republic can inch towards before the plebs start demanding the bloody heads of their masters? But worst of all, the crux of their education probably orbits the circuitous labyrinth we mere mortals call the tax code. Once anointed with the sacred tax oils, our masters like Fiona Ma know it by it's true name: Anung un rama.

  • ||

    Since the FBI is now an intelligence-gathering-terror-preventing-war-fighting agency (see http://www.fbi.gov/news/videos.....fghanistan), they apparently don't have time for "small potato" crimes like fraud and embezzlement. Thus the apparent need for an independent DoEd law-enforcement team.

    Here's an idea: how about we put the FBI back to work doing what they used to do (Federal law enforcement), and leave the intelligence-gathering, terror-preventing, and war-fighting to those departments designed to do it, like oh, I dunno, the CIA and DoD? Then the DoEd can back to whatever it is they used to do.

  • ||

    Why does the author and many readers think that this project will need operating subidies when the trains start runing.. consider these facts .. fare revenue on the now 30 year old High Speed TGV train runing between Paris to Lyon now only covered all operating costs but paid off the bonds used to pay for construction.. and the new Italo Punto in Italy will start runing on the current high speed tracks built by the Italian Government using privately funded state of the art 11 coach consits with up to 25 consist now under construction. The first is currently being tested at the Alstom plant in France.

    This development follows legislation allowing private companies to compete for business on Italy’s long-distance domestic train routes. NTV [Nuovo Trasporti Viaggiatori] is chaired by Luca di Monetmezolo of Ferrari.

    The trains, which will start running on the Rome – Milan route in September 2011, will be able to travel at up to 360 kilometres per hour. Other routes across Italy will be introduced by summer 2012. The Italo’s real selling point, however, is going to be comfort: it will be fully equipped with wi-fi and satellite TV and one coach in each train, the “carrozza cinema”, will offer cinema-standard film viewing.

    There is no reason this tuype of priavetly owned and run trains can not be operated in the US once the high speed rail tracks are laid.

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