Billion Dollar Boondoggle
by Quentin Kopp
Albert Camus predicted the death of Europe in 1957 in a lecture at the University of
Uppsala, Sweden: “My conclusion will be simple. It will consist of saying, in the very
midst of the sound and the fury of our history: ‘Let us rejoice. Let us rejoice, indeed, in
having witnessed the death of a lying and comfort-loving Europe and it being
faced with cruel truths.’”
The California High-Speed Rail Authority exists because of legislation I sponsored as a
state senator in 1996, and the approval by 52 percent of California voters in November,
2008 of a $9.95 billion state general obligation bond issue to build it.
High-speed rail began operating in 1964 in Japan in time for the Olympic games. It’s an
electrified system on steel rails with steel wheels. In 2008, California taxpayers were
promised a genuine high-speed rail system as exists in 11 nations in Asia and
Europe, with the first segment from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours and 40
minutes, a system which couldn’t be operationally subsidized by taxpayers.
That was realistic. Most high-speed rail systems in France, across the English Channel,
Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China
operate in the black. Most were built with private investors, together with public funds.
One essential is operating on track dedicated only to high-speed rail and not shared with
commuter or freight service.
After a term of four years on the Authority’s governing board, I departed as Gov. Jerry
Brown returned to the state capitol in 2011. The Authority’s board had decided the first
segment would travel the San Francisco Peninsula, then over the San Luis Pass to
Merced, Fresno, Bakersfield and Los Angeles, using the U.S. Highway 99 trail rather than
Interstate 5, which possesses no cities with potential ridership for revenue to pay
That meant acquisition of an additional 50 feet of right-of-way on the Peninsula to avert
sharing the Caltrain right-of-way. In the aforementioned countries, to cover costs,
high-speed rail must operate 10-12 trains during peak hours from 7-10 a.m. and 4-7 p.m.
It’s impossible with Caltrain now needing four trains per hour during those periods.
In 2011, with Brown appointees, including its chairman, the Authority changed the plan
presented to taxpaying voters in 2008, deciding to build a diesel energy service from
Merced to Bakersfield with approximately $3.6 billion from President Barack Obama’s
“stimulus” legislation, at a total estimated cost of about $6.9 billion.
In 2008, the Authority’s board contemplated funding from the state bond, plus federal
and regional funds from areas along the route, which wanted high-speed rail for
commercial development and consequent employment increases. The estimated cost was
about $32 billion.
Now, the non-electrified segment from Chowchilla to Wasco, about 30 miles north of
Bakersfield (the Authority will bus passengers to Bakersfield), is more than $10 billion,
the remaining state bond money is approximately $7 billion, federal funds
are expressly barred by Congressional legislation, dedicated right-of-way is barred by
state legislation, no regional investment exists and private equity firms are absent.
The estimated current cost to reach Los Angeles from San Francisco is more than $69
billion. Gov. Brown has diverted “cap and trade” state revenue to the project and, now,
it’s revealed the cost of the state bond (principal and interest) is being paid from gas tax
revenue in the State Highway Fund. (Because of interest, those costs reportedly
are about $18 billion.)
Construction of the Central Valley’s non-electrified segment began last year with the
typical political ground-breaking ceremony to misrepresent the bastardization of
high-speed rail. It began even though all of the right-of-way by eminent domain
from farmers and ranchers was not secured. It still isn’t. Yet the governor in his
State of the State message last month rhapsodized over the project, with the fiction
that it’s true high-speed rail and ignoring “cruel truths.”
Moreover, 2017 legislation increasing the gas tax and motor vehicle registrations for
roads is the subject of a proposed ballot measure for repeal this year.
While the governor accurately minimized litigation against high-speed rail, which
occurred mostly on environmental grounds, a suit set for hearing on Feb. 8 in
Sacramento County Superior Court alleges unconstitutionality of 2017 legislation
which rips, without voter authorization, $715 million from the 2008 bond issue to donate
to Caltrain for its $3 billion electrification project. In 2016, the state ripped $400 million
from the 2008 state bond measure to build a $400 million “train box” in the San
Francisco real estate project known as the “Transbay Terminal,” which will be for
buses, not railroads. Oh, those cruel truths!
Quentin Kopp is a former San Francisco supervisor and state senator, retired judge and
current member of the SF Ethics Commission.