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Train To High-Speed Bankruptcy!

Doesn't all this add up to something that just doesn't add up?

Jan 26, 2011


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Board of Directors

Denis Prosperi
Chester Andrew
Bob Smittcamp
Russ Waymire
John "Dusty" Giacone
Joe Marchini
Mark Watte
Kole Upton
Piedad Ayala
Tom Barcellos
Jim Walls

Train To High-Speed Bankruptcy!

Some items in the news today got us to thinking about the State of the City, State of the State and State of the .  First of all, there's a New York Times story about a proposed law allowing states to declare bankruptcy, as cities and counties have been able to do since the 1930s.  This would allow them to ask the courts to discount their debt which means reneging on paying for the bonds the state has issued over the years.  This doesn't appear to us to be a good thing, but the fact that it's even being discussed points to the severity of the situation that California and the nation faces.  Second, according to Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters there's a proposal "buried in Gov. Jerry Brown's budget" to suspend sales of new state bonds.   Walters says this is official recognition that the state is under a mountain of current debt and needs to take a breather and not pile up any new debt.  In the same article Walters asks if we can really afford to issue a $9.95 billion bond for the bullet train that appears to be a solution in search of a problem.  Third, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin had a news conference at FYI airport when she flew in from Washington D.C., where she and a small group of mayors had met with President Barrack Obama at the U.S. Conference of Mayors.  She said she was able to tell the President about the importance of high-speed rail to Fresno and the Central Valley(see article below). 

So, we are having a discussion about the possibility of allowing states to declare bankruptcy, a discussion about suspending the sale of new state bonds, and at the same time discussing building a bullet train with a new state bond and stimulus funds from the feds.  Doesn't all this add up to something that just doesn't add up?  This used to be called spending money we don't have.  It's now called 'investment' in the future.  Wouldn't this be a good time to put the brakes on the bullet train until we get out of this mountain of debt so the next generation can have a future? 

It just so happens that there are three interviews on today's FoxBusiness.com regarding high-speed rail, the first with former Chowchilla City Councilman Jim Kopshever, the second with Madera Farm Bureau Director Julia Berry, and the third with Madera County Supervisor Frank Bigelow
.  All of them express their concerns with high-speed rail.  There is a short commercial you must watch prior to the interviews.  

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A memorable night at Fresno's airport

The e-mail from Fresno City Hall spokesman Michael Lukens flashed across my computer screen on Friday: Mayor Ashley Swearengin should be arriving at Fresno Yosemite International Airport at about 9:45 that night and would be available for a brief media interview.

I showed up, and am glad I did. It was most interesting for two reasons.

1.) I'd never been to an impromptu mayoral news conference at the airport.

2.) Swearengin's main topic was to be high-speed rail.

Swearengin had spent most of the week at the 79th Winter Meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. On Friday morning, she and a small group of other mayors met with President Barack Obama at the White House.

Swearengin's last hop on the cross-country trip home was from Dallas-Fort Worth. The plane was only a few minutes late, but I got to the airport early and had a 20-minute wait.

TV was there channels 24, 30 and 47. Their cameras were set up in the public waiting area near the bookstore.

Paul Swearengin, the Mayor's husband, was there, as well, but he stayed back with the crowd. After returning the hug to her son, Swearengin walked to the cameras.

On her meeting with Obama: "I had a chance to talk to him about the importance of high-speed rail in Fresno and make sure that we build this train in an efficient manner. [I want to] make sure that the permitting process goes very smoothly. We've got a lot of follow-up work to do to make sure that happens."

On Obama's reaction to her comments: "He certainly understands the importance of moving along as quickly as possible and building the train as inexpensively as possible but also doing it right. I think there's an open door to produce a good plan that hopefully he could support and perhaps even, by executive order or some other means, make sure that the train gets built in an efficient manner."

On the reaction of other mayors to high-speed rail in California: "I have found that people across the country understand that our train system is different than some of the others that have been proposed in the middle part of the country and on the East Coast. Legislators and other folks that I talked to other mayors would say, 'Oh, yeah, the California train makes sense. It's further along. Voters have passed an initiative to provide funding for the train.' There's a recognition that, given the size of our state ... it makes sense here in California."

On California's path-breaking effort to build a high-speed rail system: "I think that we've got to chart a course, a new course, [to] figure how to do it efficiently, effectively. And, of course, we want it done right. We want it done in the first place, but it has to be done right and it has to be done as quickly and as inexpensively as possible."

On the significance of her face-to-face conversation with Obama for Fresno's national profile: "It was a terrific opportunity to make sure that Fresno is represented, that we're on the map, that we're seen as a forerunner for high-speed rail in the country but that we need special assistance to get it done well."

On the meaning of the term "executive order" in comment above: "We're not exactly sure how this plan [for high-speed rail] may come together. We're just getting the minds around the table. Obviously it's extremely technical and legal to figure out all the environmental permitting processes that are required to build the largest public works project that's ever been undertaken in our country's history. So it may be the case that we ask for some kind of special, high-level executive authority to expedite the construction of this train. It is very early in the discussion process and I certainly am not intending that that request is forthcoming. But what I talked to the President about today was the need to make sure, if we come up with a smart plan to get this done very quickly and efficiently, that we would have support from the White House to do that. I'm hopeful that that's going to be the case."

On whether she also spoke about high-speed rail to Republicans in Congress: "This trip was largely the [Mayors'} conference, so I didn't spend a lot of time on The Hill. But ... I'll be back again in late February and I'll do a lot more work with the administration, and then meetings on The Hill."

Then the news conference was over and the Swearengins headed home.

My thoughts after the news conference:

1.) I smell big trouble with anything that requires an "executive order" to move it along the political process.

2.) Bright lights, cameras, reporters all showing up late at night to fire questions at a mayor returning from a long flight the political world must be intoxicating to those who succeed in it.

3.) Even after decades in the news business, I still find cameras and fellow reporters and politicians and big, high-risk ideas to be thoroughly intoxicating.


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