Somewhat bafflingly, California Governor Jerry Brown’s continued his unwavering support for beleaguered high speed rail plans in his State of the State speech last week. The HSR line would link Los Angeles and San Francisco with trains going 200 mph. The HSR line was initially budgeted at $33 billion with current estimates now at almost $100 billion.
The problem is voters are now mostly opposed to HSR, given the huge cost. Federal government money which was expected to fund much of it is gone. Existing federal funding will go through. But future funding will be non-existent. This leaves, oh, $90 billion or so that the state will need to find to finance the project.
The governor loudly decried critics of HSR, saying many mocked and scoffed, saying the Suez Canal, the Interstate system, and the Central Valley Water Project couldn’t be built, yet they were. But it’s that financing thing again. The Suez Canal had financial support from governments. The Interstate system was funded by the US government. And, ahem, the Central Valley Water Project ended up being bailed out by the federal government. Besides, just because other big construction projects were initially derided but completed anyway has little relevance as to whether HSR in California should be built. China has several ‘ghost cities’, enormous projects that were built at huge expense. But no one lives in them. Investors and the government have massive losses because of this. So they did build them. And no one came. That’s what some think about California HSR. The ridership estimates are way too high and it could never make a profit. Even a state panel says HSR is not feasible.
Governor Brown says a new HSR plan will be released in a few weeks which will clear up any loose ends as to where the missing billions will come from. Pardon my skepticism, but California simply doesn’t have that kind of money. Sacramento does have a long and dubious history of finding hitherto unknown sources of income at the opportune moment only to have them vaporize a few months later. Like a mirage, the money never was there.
Assembly Speaker Pérez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg say talk of where HSR should first be constructed is beside the point; it just needs to start. For them, a 130 mile line from “nowhere to nowhere” in the Central Valley is a fine place to begin. That would cost $20 billion or so. No word from them on where the other $80 billion will come from or if such a HSR line would end being like a China ghost city if the rest of the line wasn’t built.
California is facing a massive deficit. Gov. Brown’s speech called for less spending and more taxes. Yet he wants massive spending on water projects (which are needed) as well as high speed rail. This has veteran Sacramento Bee reporter Dan Walters a bit confused.
Jerry showed his old contradictory traits – urging legislators to save money by slashing spending, calling for “Prudence and paying down debt,” and then urging them to add billions of dollars in debt to build a bullet train. It’s vintage Brown.
But where will the money come from?