Commentary

Commentary – Quentin Kopp

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

operating expenses.

 

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.

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