Briefly last week supporters of California’s high-speed train project had something to cheer about. The state legislature, in approving a budget for 2014-15, voted to divert $250 million of expected cap-and-trade funds to the project, and subsequently allocating 25 percent of such funds during each year of construction.
Governor Jerry Brown initially called this his “legacy” project. He doesn’t use that term any more, but he nevertheless worked assiduously with legislative leaders to come up with the funds that go into effect July 1. Why the urgency?
Typically, an infrastructure project involving federal matching funds must begin with the state putting its own money down first. Under the rules here, California must spend those federal funds by September 2017. Project planners feared that wouldn’t happen if they didn’t get a move on now.
Does this mean that the first 100 miles of track between two Central Valley towns (“the train to nowere”) will actually be built? Not necessarily. Last fall, a state judge ruled that bonds could not be sold nor funds spent because the ballot issue voters approved four years ago, Proposition 1A, required that all sources of funding for the entire project be identified before anything could be committed. The state’s lawyers appealed, arguing that this was not the intent of the ballot proposition, and the Third District Court of Appeals signaled it might look well on that argument. Just about then, however, a group of Valley ranchers and public officials filed a new set of lawsuits contending that the impact of the railroad on the environment had not been fully assessed.
To make matters worse, a majority of Californians now tell pollsters that they have had second thoughts and that the railroad should not be built.
Who is still for it? In addition to the governor and the legislature, it has support from engineering and construction firms that could benefit from contracts, some construction unions, romantic rail buffs, and some environmentalists. The Sierra Club, however, has said it is concerned that diverting cap-and-trade revenue to an infrastructure won’t result in reduced emissions of that old debbil carbon any time soon.
The high-speed rail authority had been banking on Amtrak to buy rolling stock jointly, thus saving money for both. By week’s end, though, Amtrak had pulled out. It decided that the needs of its trains, which can at best run 160 miles per hour (on the Washington-New York route), are very different from those of the California line, which some claim will regularly hit 200 mph.
Congress will heard from again, too. Earlier this month, the House of Representatives voted to strip funding for the California rail project from its transportation bill. Kevin McCarthy, the House’s new majority leader, is from Bakersfield in the Valley and is firmly opposed to the project. In this election year, four California House Democrats joined Republicans in voting down the high-speed rail funds. Last year, the Senate restored the funds the House would have deleted. It remains to be seen what this year’s outcome will be.
Meanwhile, we count three chugs creeping forward for the railroad and five or six going backward. If that ratio holds, the public may get its wish.