A devastating report from the California Legislative Analyst's Office recommends that the Golden State take its high speed rail project offline, dismantle its longstanding high speed rail authority, renegotiate the terms of funding coming from Washington D.C., and postpone planning in a way that could result in the state's effectively rejecting federal high speed rail funds.
To unpack Thronson's recommendations a bit:
• If the state must "obtain relief" from current federal restrictions on the project, that would, under ordinary circumstances, mean missing the September 2012 deadline to begin the project or lose federal funds. However, the state managed to get that deadline lifted by agreeing to the Federal Rail Authority's widely ridiculed "train to nowhwere" plan that would have the project beginning in a remote pocket of the Central Valley. From page 9 of the report: "After HSRA approved the Central Valley section, the FRA dropped the September 2011 deadline for environmental clearance work." However, there are related deadlines, including a completion deadline of 2017 for stimulus funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Moreover, the LAO also recommends reconsidering the route of the first leg, which would remove the condition on which the FRA waived its deadline in the first place.
• By recommending that the currently planned alignment for the first leg (which the report refers to, variously, as running from "near Fresno" to "north of Bakersfield"), the LAO concedes that the train to nowhere plan is unfeasible. The report notes that the projected cost of just this segment has increased more than 57 percent since planning began, and the LAO's advice to base the project on need and projected rider revenue makes the Corcoran-to-Borden route a non-starter.
• The recommendation that the legislature "shift responsibility" from the California High Speed Rail Authority to Caltrans is another radical suggestion made in measured tones. The authority has a long history of costly non-performance, and dismantling it makes sense. But it's new for a respected government authority to make the suggestion.
• So is the recommendation to "remove decision-making authority from the HSRA board." Again, leadership of the authority, even at the level of personnel and public relations, has been disastrous. But by making sure "state fiscal concerns are fully taken into account," the LAO is acknowledging that there is no justification for spending any more money on the project. The report suggests that Gov. Jerry Brown's $185 million requested appropriation be whittled down to only $7 million. That's close to nothing in government work. (As of last year the California High Speed Rail Authority had spent $250 million since 1996, without laying an inch of track.)
Prior to the LAO announcement, Cato's Randal O'Toole suggested the multistate rejection of FRA funds means the Obama Administration's high speed rail plan is over, and not just in California:
In essence, the administration has given up on high-speed rail. New York Times editorial writers haven't figured that out yet, opining that Florida Governor Scott made a dreadful mistake when he rejected the rail money. In fact, as tax activist Doug Guetzloe told a Tampa newspaper, "Federally funded rail is like being given a brand new Maserati and then you have to pick up the gas and the insurance — forever. The car looks great, but the costs will kill you."
The Times suggested that Florida taxpayers will resent Scott's decision whenever they are stuck in traffic. But no one seriously believes that intercity rail will ever relieve traffic congestion, most of which is in cities, not between them. In its original application for high-speed rail funds, Florida's DOT admitted that Orlando-to-Tampa traffic grows more every five years than all the cars the trains were expected to take off the road, so at best high-speed rail was a very expensive and temporary solution to congestion.
Outside of the Times editorial offices, most transportation experts agree that the President's high-speed rail program is over and his draft transportation bill is dead on arrival. Taxpayers throughout the country should thank Scott (as well as Ohio Governor John Kasich and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker) for saving them the hundreds of billions of dollars that Obama's program would have eventually cost.
Also before the LAO report, the Los Angeles Times' Richard Simon and Michael Muskal gave an upbeat view that Florida's rejection would help add 20 miles to the train to nowhere, possibly allowing it to reach Fresno itself. To do so will mean rejecting the nearly unanimous recommendations (including previous LAO reports) of experts, in government and out of it, who have examined the high speed rail plan.