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Bullet trains vs. book learning

The latest incarnation of the transit plan is an improvement, but should high-speed rail take priority over higher education? Either way, the state needs to pump more funds into the treasury.

April 05, 2012|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • An artist's rendering of a high-speed-rail station.
An artist's rendering of a high-speed-rail station. (California High-Speed…)

SACRAMENTO — The bullet train boondoggle is looking more like a bullet bull's-eye. But one big question lingers: Where are the bucks?

And even if the state can find the bucks, should it spend them on building a high-speed rail line, a cool choo-choo? Especially when higher education in California is such a train wreck?

Education — kindergarten through college — should be our No. 1 priority, for both moral and economic reasons. Producing an educated, skilled workforce for the increasingly competitive global economy is even more important than creating temporary track-laying jobs.

University of California student tuitions have been soaring, largely because of state funding cutbacks. The California State University system has announced it will freeze most admissions for spring 2013, sidetracking freshmen to community colleges. But community colleges have shed more than 300,000 students since 2009.

Bullet train versus book learning doesn't have to be an either/or question, nor should it be. But first Sacramento needs to pump a lot more revenue into its treasury.

Gov. Jerry Brown has been trying to do that, but so far he hasn't produced. He's proposing a soak-the-rich income tax hike, augmented with a minimal sales tax increase, for the November ballot. But that wouldn't cover any new rail costs.

So denouncing bullet train skeptics as "declinists" — the governor's favorite new word — rings hollow when the vault is vacant.

That rant aside, the latest version of the state's high-speed rail plan announced Monday makes much more sense than the previous incarnations.

It would actually provide service, initially, for riders in the Los Angeles Basin and San Francisco Bay Area, rather than merely in isolated San Joaquin Valley farm fields, as originally drawn up at the insistence of the federal government. The so-called train to nowhere.

"My sense is that Republicans in Washington have been salivating at the prospect of using this in the fall campaign, saying that the Obama administration and California want to build a train to nowhere," says state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), chairman of the Senate Committee on High-Speed Rail.

Lowenthal has been critical of plans for the bullet train but says "it's moving in the right direction. There's a real acknowledgment that high-speed rail and conventional rail can be part of a seamless statewide rail network. That's a major step forward."

Under the latest version, rail construction would still start this fall in the San Joaquin Valley, from south of Merced to Bakersfield. That would cost roughly $6 billion — $3.3 billion of it federal grants, $2.7 billion from state bond funds.

But there's a new substantial upgrade: The line would continue south from Bakersfield to Palmdale, linking with an improved Metrolink to the San Fernando Valley, probably extending to Burbank by 2022.

Meanwhile, Amtrak service north of Merced and Caltrain in the Bay Area would be significantly improved so there'd be a "blended" — bullet and conventional — line between L.A. and San Francisco by the mid-to-late 2020s.

How swift? Faster than a car, slower than a plane. At full throttle, in the 125 mph to 200 mph range, about three hours.

Money for this expansion is still a mystery. But if more federal funds cannot be obtained or private investments raised — and there's little immediate prospect of either — Brown has a backup. He's proposing to use new cap-and-trade fees that the state plans to collect from industry in its controversial crusade to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The governor has penciled in $1 billion from such fees in his current budget proposal but is forecasting the receipt of many times that in future years.

"We still have to find out whether all this is legal," says Lowenthal, referring to what's allowable under the bullet train bond measure that voters narrowly approved in 2008 and whether cap-and-trade money can be used for a railroad.

You could get motion sickness trying to keep up with the shifting sticker price for this project.

The latest Phase 1, Los Angeles to San Francisco, estimate is $68.4 billion. That's reduced from $98.5 billion in November. The state is saving by using existing right of way in urban areas and escalating construction, thereby reducing inflation costs.

But voters were told when they approved the project four years ago that Phase 1 would cost $33 billion. The ultimate, complete package — with lines to San Diego and Sacramento — would cost $45 billion. Nobody's even attempting to update that number.

Only about $13 billion in financing has been identified: roughly $9.5 billion in state bonds and the $3.3 billion in federal funds.

Bond financing isn't free. It's like credit-card charging.

The $2.7 billion in bond sales that the governor wants the Legislature to approve for initial construction would cost the state general fund roughly $180 million annually for 30 years.

Brown derides bullet train skeptics as "declinists" and equates them with original opponents of the interstate highway system, the state water project and the Golden Gate Bridge. But those projects were paid for with fuel taxes, water fees and bridge tolls.

So far, most of California's high-speed rail financing would be footed by the deficit-plagued general fund.

The Legislature, which created this project, must decide this year whether to commence construction or park the train for awhile.

Dan Richard, a former Bay Area transit official who is the governor's handpicked new chairman of the state High-Speed Rail Authority, answers the either/or question this way:

"What's happening to the state's education system tugs at my heartstrings…. But we can't avoid investment in mobility. That would just choke the state. We've got to get our economic engine going. It's the thing that will sustain our education system."

Fine. But show us the bucks to build.

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