The Bullet Train to Nowhere

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s sudden excursion into the high-speed rail controversy is perplexing for many reasons.

To begin with this was not his but his predecessor’s “legacy” project which went off the tracks some time ago and efforts to resurrect it have not fared well.

This is not his promise to fulfill, and no immediate decisions are needed anyway since the billions more that will be required to complete a project now estimated at $77 billion and growing are not readily available either from Sacramento or Washington.

In fact, President Trump is now demanding that the $3.5 billion which have not been used be returned. This drew a predictable response from the Democratic governor!  He might want to tell Trump, I will be keeping the money to pay for the military personnel who I had to recall from border duty after you declared the non-existent national emergency that will cost us more money because we have joined 15 other states which will be suing the government because you have over-stepped your authority.
Some visions take a longer time to come to fruition but in the end the efforts may be justified.

Jerry Brown’s vision in which he was joined by his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to move the state forward into a “carbon-free” future is one such example.

The high speed “bullet” train which is now $44 billion over budget and going on 14 years behind schedule is looking more like a pipe dream that could turn into a nightmare.

Cleaner air might ultimately be among the desirable byproducts of this gigantic undertaking which some have described as equivalent to the opening of the West by the transcontinental railroad.

But without doing crystal ball gazing, electric cars, taxing energy polluters and developing renewable energy alternatives look like better investments.

For now, after years of litigation, claims of mismanagement, environmental constraints, and strong community pushback, the total tracks that have been partially constructed run only the short distance between Bakersfield and Merced in the Central Valley.

In between are farm and residential communities which may not welcome the opening of a second Western frontier by fast tains.

Newsom says he is prepared to accept a radically scaled down version of the system. Originally, the State Rail agency estimated the acquisition alone of the properties along this route would cost $332 million. That figure has now risen to $1.5 billion.

The Central Valley portion of the rail line which runs 164 miles between Bakersfield and Merced was initially intended as a prototype for the much larger system. It proved to be an experiment gone bad which the governor now seems intent on salvaging.

But when voters over a decade ago approved the $10 billion bond issue that jump-started this project they did not have a model railroad in mind.

Even assuming thousands more miles of track were laid there are few if any reliable measurements of how many automobile drivers this would take off the highways, what it might do to relieve big-city traffic congestion, whether it is any real solution to urban sprawl,  and how it would benefit the transportation needs of a growing population soon to top 40 million.

Regardless, Newsom immediately put the kabash on such a grandiose scheme declaring, “there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A.”

So why bring attention to a cause which holds little promise, is not gaining in popularity and has lost its biggest champion?
Governors—especially new ones—are well advised to pick battles they think they can win. These presumably should coincide with what the voters seem to want.
A very expensive, shiny new rail system, even one that could be guaranteed to do its job if it were ever completed, is not very high on the list of voter priorities.

Restoring the state’s crumbling highways, roads, bridges and dams and addressing urgent short and long-term water demands would be a wiser use of funds.

Newsom’s advocacy for a “single-tunnel” approach to state water allocations rather than the twin-tunnel idea which Brown was promoting should be applauded although it is likely to go through substantial modifications.

The housing crisis—and that’s not an overstatement—has already caught the governor’s attention as has the need for more pre-school education funding, expansion of healthcare to millions of Californians without health insurance and remedying joblessness and the need for retraining in a technology-driven economy.

And this is before we deal with another less visible but impending crisis which are the ballooning unfunded pension plans that could in worsening economic times along with falling tax collections help push the state into insolvency.

Newsom demonstrated sound vision as a Mayor who many see as either propelling or sacrificing his career when he pushed for acceptance of same-sex marriage. Today it is the law of the land.

He now has a much larger canvass on which to work which poses both greater opportunities and the possibility of missteps that could derail (pun intended) other ambitions.

High-speed rail may not be a win-or-lose proposition. But it will never satisfy everyone whatever the outcome.  However, Newsom is trying to have it both ways and voters respect conviction over waffling even when they disagree.

He should let this project languish while its enthusiasts continue to make the case for it. But there is little evidence, given other more urgent needs, that the voters will be changing their minds anytime soon.

If the state budget surplus grows exponentially with no recession fears, and after this president departs the scene Congress is feeling generous toward California,, perhaps we can revisit the subject.

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