Gov. Brown won’t give up on the future — of his 1970s youth

Susan Shelley
Columnist and member of the editorial board of the Southern California News Group, and the author of the book, "How Trump Won."

Gov. Jerry Brown will not take no for an answer.

His administration is pushing ahead to issue $2.6 billion in bonds to keep up work on the bullet train, even though the funding for the $64 billion project is drying up everywhere else.

The federal government’s initial $3.3 billion, part of the 2009 stimulus bill, is apparently the last of the money that Washington plans to sink into the project. The Trump administration just canceled a $647 million grant that was supposed to be used to electrify Caltrain in the Bay Area. That’s needed if the tracks are one day going to be part of a “blended” system that would be called high-speed rail.

The governor’s plan to fund the train’s construction with 25 percent of the state’s “cap-and-trade” revenues is falling apart, too. Under AB32, the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act, the state auctions off permits to emit greenhouse gases. The revenue is supposed to be spent on projects that reduce greenhouse gases.

But the “cap-and-trade” program has problems, including a lawsuit contending that it’s an illegal tax, an impending end date of 2020 unless the Legislature renews it, and weaker-than-projected demand for the permits. The state’s latest auction was expected to bring in $600 million. It raised only $10 million.

Part of the funding for the bullet train, or so voters were told in 2008, would come from private investors. They would help to cover the cost of construction so they could share in the profits once the trains started running. So far, not even Bernie Madoff’s investors have fallen for it.

But still, Gov. Brown pushes forward on this mission to bring high-speed rail to California, even as maintenance of the state’s essential roads and bridges is deferred and underfunded.

It’s a mystery, or maybe it isn’t.

When the world’s first bullet train began operation in Japan in 1964, high-speed rail was celebrated as the future of transportation.

In 1964, Jerry Brown was 26 years old, freshly graduated from Yale Law School and on his way to being elected California secretary of state in 1970. Four years later he would be elected governor.

Maybe you remember the ’70s. Early in the decade there was an Arab oil embargo and a sober (though incorrect) consensus that the Earth was rapidly running out of fossil fuels. California’s roads were full of Ford LTDs and Chevy Bel Air 350 V8s that got 12 miles to the gallon and drove like a sofa on a rocket.

Then in 1979, the Shah of Iran was overthrown. The Ayatollah Khomeini came to power and cut Iran’s oil production, sending U.S. gasoline prices to the sky. Soon California’s roads were full of fuel-efficient little Japanese cars. Japan had the technology America lacked. Not only that, Japan had a bullet train.

Gov. Jerry Brown was just past his 40th birthday.

Now 78, Brown is in his second term as governor for the second time, and the “future of transportation” is still out there like Captain Ahab’s great white whale.

If Sigmund Freud worked two shifts, he still couldn’t figure out why Brown is obsessed with having a bullet train, or maybe he could, but the fact remains that California voters agreed to a high-speed rail line that goes from San Francisco to Los Angeles without a tax increase or a public subsidy, and what they’re getting is a lot of debt and a train to Wasco.

That’s the latest plan. The first operating segment of the bullet train will be built from San Jose to a field near Wasco, population 26,000, about 40 minutes northwest of Bakersfield. That’s by car. By bullet train you’d be in Bakersfield faster, but the project doesn’t have the funding to get to Bakersfield.

The bullet train doesn’t really have a source of funding at all, but the High Speed Rail Authority pushed back against a news report that the train is a financial wreck. In mid-January, a state employee with the title of Information Officer II blasted out an email complaining about the “serious mischaracterization” of a project that has brought “significant and tangible benefits in California communities.”

Cited as evidence of this were two reports — one from the U.S. Department of Transportation titled, “Shovel-Worthy: What the Recovery Act Taught Us About Investing in Our Nation’s Infrastructure,” and one from the U.S. Treasury Department titled, “40 Proposed U.S. Transportation and Water Infrastructure Projects of Major Economic Significance.”

In the second report, which focuses on major infrastructure projects that have stalled for one reason or another, the California High Speed Rail project is listed as having up to $260 billion in economic benefits, third-highest of the 40 projects. However, those benefits were calculated based on the fantasy completion of the entire 800-mile rail system, “because the real value to the nation would be delivered only if the entire program or a large portion thereof was completed.”

The “Shovel-Worthy” report brags that $2 billion of stimulus funds for high-speed rail were spent creating jobs in the Central Valley, with “significant small and disadvantaged business participation.” There’s a new concrete plant in Fresno that recycles gray water. There’s a “certified” Hispanic-owned business based in L.A. County that has a contract to relocate utility lines.

That’s very nice, but kind of expensive. If you want to get from L.A. to San Francisco, a 1979 Datsun is still faster.

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