When he was a boy, Jerry Brown must have asked Santa Claus for a toy train set but not gotten one. How else can one explain the California governor’s obsession with building a “high-speed” train other than it being compensation for an unmet childhood desire?
Initially, the train in question would run between two towns in the state’s San Joaquin Valley, the southern half of its huge Central Valley. It is supposed to be the first section of a 520-mile network that would connect that big metropolitan centers of Northern and Southern California.
In 2008, California voters, seduced by union-funded advertising, voted for a $9 billion bond issue as “seed money” to begin the system. Brown wants to use the first $2.7 billion of this to get construction under way. The Obama Administration has promised a $3.5 billion carrot for California along with a “stick” in the form of a demand to get construction of the toy train underway this year.
Since 2008 the cost of the network between the San Francisco Bay Area and Orange County has been put at between $98 billion and $117 billion. The completion date has gone from 2020 to as late as 2033. This phase of the network does not include either San Diego or Sacramento. The bipartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates service of the bond issues for this phase will amount to $700 million a year in a state that perpetually faces large annual deficits and cuts such things as rural school buses and in-home service for low-income seniors to deal with the problem.
To put it mildly, enthusiasm for the “bullet train” scheme has dimmed since 2008. A recent Field Poll found that by two-to-one, California voters would turn it down if it were on this year’s ballot.
The non-partisan California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group reported early this year that the project is “not financially feasible” and urged the legislature to decline the governor’s request for the $2.7 billion toy train bond money. Brown calls anyone who opposes him a “declinist.”
Last year the governors of Florida and Ohio declined to accept federal handouts for similar “high-speed” train systems in their states. This did not dent the determination of the Obama Administration. It responded by offering the declined money to other states eager to get it. California was one of these; hence the federal “free” money offer to get the project going.
Jerry Brown is now California’s oldest governor. The first time around, he was its youngest. Nowadays he thinks about a “legacy.” He probably thinks of the “legacy” of his late father, Governor “Pat” Brown, in boom times: an excellent highway network, expanded higher education system, and a comprehensive statewide water system. To match all that he needs something BIG. The “high-speed” railway seems to be it. Despite ample warnings by disinterested parties that it will not draw the expected ridership, will have huge cost overruns, take much longer to build than expected, and will saddle the state with large operating costs, Brown is determined to plunge ahead.
Will the state legislature approve the bond sale this year? That’s uncertain, but here’s a clue: both houses are dominated by Democrats. Many of them are beholden to public employee unions that like the high-speed rail plan. And, Brown is a Democrat.