A few days before this month's election, the federal government announced that California would receive an additional $715 million in funds for its high-speed rail project, contingent on the money being quickly spent on a segment in the San Joaquin Valley.
Why? You'd have to be terminally naïve not to believe that the splashy announcement, made personally by an Obama administration official in Fresno, was to help an embattled local congressman, Democrat Jim Costa, stave off a very stiff Republican challenge.
Costa, a long-time bullet train advocate, did, in fact, eke out a narrow re-election win. And last week, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) announced plans to spend that money and some other federal and state funds, $4.3 billion in all, to build a 54-mile segment from Madera to Corcoran.
It was instructive on two fronts. It illustrated the pork barrel aspects of the scheme, with financing, routes and station sites dependent more on political pull than objective criteria. It also underscored the eagerness of bullet train boosters to turn dirt, thereby creating a moral commitment to complete the project despite its deficiencies.
So let's get this straight:
The HSRA's ridership and revenue estimates have been widely panned, including a blistering critique by the University of California's Institute for Transportation Studies, for their pie-in-the-sky unreality.
At a state Senate hearing this month, the UC researchers said the authority's ridership consultant cooked the books to create a far rosier picture than the facts warranted. Opposition is building in the Legislature, with Democratic senators publicly blasting the HSRA for clinging to an unrealistic business plan.
The state's involvement is limited to a $9.95 billion bond issue.
While the feds have committed a few billion dollars, the new GOP majority in Congress wants to block further financing. Several California congressmen have urged cancellation of money already in the pipeline. They include Bakersfield's Kevin McCarthy, who's now No. 3 in the House hierarchy.
Without a full federal commitment, there is absolutely no chance that the much-touted outside investors, either private or governmental entities such as China, will sign on. They also indicate they want revenue guarantees, i.e. subsidies, that the state bond issue bans to make up for any ridership shortfalls.
There are huge unresolved route issues, including implacable opposition on the San Francisco Peninsula to running bullet trains through their bucolic communities and environmental group criticism of the route over Pacheco Pass.
Despite this jumble of political and financial uncertainty, the HSRA plans to spend billions of dollars on a section of track out in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley.
Is that crazy or what?
Editorial: High-speed boondoggle could derail
California's high-speed rail project already has spent millions of taxpayer dollars, much of it on contractors without bothering to ask for time sheets, work summaries or other documentation of what the money paid for. Now the $43 billion, ill-conceived scheme may lose its sugar daddy – the federal government.
"Wasting no time after a victorious midterm election, GOP congressional leaders who promised to slash spending are looking to make an example of the nation's priciest public works project: California's $43 billion high-speed railroad," the San Jose Mercury News recently reported. We say, good riddance.
Nevertheless, President Barack Obama announced days before the election another $715 million for the project, contingent on it being spent quickly on a lonely segment in the San Joaquin Valley. That may have boosted local Democratic congressman Jim Costa's reelection campaign enough to win.
As Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters observed, the episode "illustrated the pork-barrel aspects of the scheme, with financing, routes and station sites dependent more on political pull than objective criteria."
About the same time, California Inspector General Laura Chick's examination of 11 rail authority contracts, totaling $9 million, showed $3.4 million worth lacked documentation to prove how the money was spent. Red-faced rail authorities said they would start checking documentation before paying contractors.
The high-speed rail plan, approved in 2008 by voters authorizing sale of $9 billion in bonds, has been more about getting and spending money than connecting Anaheim to San Francisco with train tracks. It's not difficult to imagine the 2020 completion date passing without as much as a mile of track laid, but many pockets lined.
The likelihood of more federal handouts like the $2 billion supposedly in the pipeline already isn't good now that Republicans control the House. And, without money from Washington, "there's absolutely no chance that the much-touted outside investors, either private or government entities such as China, will sign on," Mr. Walters opined in Monday's Sacramento Bee.
The high-speed rail program has been a solution in search of a problem. It will cost more and take longer for commuters to go from Southern to Northern California than by air travel. Northern California communities and environmentalists threaten lawsuits to block the plan. Projected ridership levels long have been exposed as inflated, meaning ticket revenue won't cover costs. The $43 billion price tag certainly will be much more by 2020's completion date.
Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker has vowed to reject $810 million in stimulus funds for high-speed rail there, as has Republican governor-elect John Kasich of Ohio's slated $400 million. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, shamelessly offered to take any high-speed rail money other states reject. By spending as much as soon as possible, train-backers (and recipients of train contracts) hope to establish a "moral commitment to complete the project despite its deficiencies," Mr. Walters wrote.
California doesn't need another multibillion boondoggle to enrich a few insiders to provide an unneeded, infeasible train that will be a further drag on taxpayers and the economy. The high-speed rail authority should disband.