You want to kill a project like high-speed rail? Just let
the Green Eyeshade Brigade start working on it.

On Tuesday, Mac Taylor and his Legislative Analyst’s Office put out a report that treated
the 15-year-old effort to tie the state together with a 200-plus mph train as
something nasty that needed to be wiped off his shoe.

You might remember that plan. It’s the one that 6.6 million
California voters agreed to support with $9 billion in state bond money when
they passed Prop. 1A back in 2008.

It’s also the one that has collected around $3.5 billion in
federal funds even as President Obama has announced a six-year, $53 million
plan to expand high-speed rail, including $8 billion in next year’s budget.

But the LAO report, which could easily be subtitled "Why
Would Anyone Want to Go to Fresno?," finds that there just aren’t enough guarantees
in the landmark transportation project and comes up with a bunch of suggestions
seemingly designed to sink the project in that classic bureaucratic tactic
known as being nibbled to death by ducks.

First, the LAO wants the state to tell the federal
government it has to change the rules and deadlines set for the project. (Ask
former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger how well California’s ultimatums work in

Then, the Legislature needs to slash Gov. Brown’s request
for $185 million for the project, which the feds say has to break ground by
September 2012, down to $7 million, which maybe keeps the doors open.

The state also should dump plans to build the first 140
miles of track from Bakersfield through Fresno to Chowchilla and instead start
the system in either L.A. or the Bay Area, where the cost per mile skyrockets.

Finally, the whole project should be supervised by a new and
not-yet-existing department of Caltrans, both because of its record of
accomplishment (See: Bay Bridge, seismic retrofit of) and because leaving the
current board, appointed by the governor and the Legislature, in charge
"creates a risk that the board will pursue its primary mission – construction
of the statewide high-speed rail system – without sufficient regard to other state
considerations, such as state fiscal concerns."

That’s, of course, "if upon weighing these factors the
Legislature chooses to go forward with the project," which gives a pretty good
indication of where the LAO is coming from.

There’s plenty of room for concern about the future of
high-speed rail. As the LAO points out, without something like the guaranteed
funding the gas tax provides for highway construction, the project is going to
depend on annual appropriations that already have become a political football,
both in Sacramento and D.C.

California’s typical NIMBY culture is also in full cry, with
residents of the San Francisco Peninsula, Central Valley and Southern
California suggesting that it’s a great project to build in someone else’s
neighborhood. If the LAO can put together a report on how to avoid those
inevitable lawsuits aimed at any mayor California project, it’s sure to be a

The report makes other good points about improving the way
decisions are made, putting together better information for the Legislature and
taking a closer look at all the numbers for the proposed system.

But the LAO report views the high-speed rail project only
through the prism of construction costs, which isn’t the only part of the plan.


Almost from the opening section, the report assumes the rail
project will be a failure and that the only question is how to make it less of
a disaster.

Let’s move the first segment of track out of the Central
Valley, the report pleads, and put it where people actually live so there’s
something useful built before the money runs out. Let’s cut funding now and
build in delays so we miss the federal deadlines and can kill this thing
quietly. Let’s put the entire project under state control so we can get people
in charge that aren’t actually committed to high-speed rail.

But there’s only a passing mention of what high-speed rail
can bring to California, as though that vision of a state knit closer together
by a transit system that looks beyond the coastal megalopolises doesn’t really
count for anything.

Complaints that putting the first segment of track in the
Central Valley is an example of a "train to nowhere" likely don’t sit too well
with the 500,000 people living in Fresno, the 250,000 residents of Bakersfield
or the hundreds of thousands of other folks who find themselves cut off from
California’s urban, cultural and financial centers by time and distance.

Those people voted for the rail system because they believed
fast trains would tie them closer to the coast and the coast closer to them,
spreading California’s wealth more evenly through the state. And voters in the
rest of the state agreed.

In a Fox and
Hounds piece Wednesday
, Joel Fox wrote that voters might like a mulligan on
the high-speed rail vote so they could "cut their loses before things get

I don’t think so. Regular Californians dream bigger than the
accountants, analysts, politicians and, yes, even pundits. In the past, the
state’s leaders have put their mark on California with highways, dams, roads,
water systems, bridges, universities and other gee-whiz projects that were a
risk when they were first conceived.

But Californians have always been risk takers and people
more interested in hearing how something new can get done than in being told
why it’s impossible.

Japan, France and other countries have shown high-speed rail
isn’t impossible. It shouldn’t be impossible in California, either.

John Wildermuth is a
longtime writer on California politics.