Co-author of the Reason Foundation’s 2008 study, “The California High Speed Rail Project: A Due Diligence Report”, whose warnings about the project have over time proven to be accurate.

Rarely has one promotional blurb on a book jacket hooked me into immediately opening the pages and reading late into the night. However, this one line about a fictional high-speed rail project did just that:

“Tom Bates’ mission is simple. Begin building a high speed railroad at midnight. Spend the money quickly so that when
dawn casts its first light the people of California discover too much has been invested to turn back the clock on the project.”

Sound familiar? In Midnight Departure, author Dan Lombard pits Tom Bates, the slick director of SpeedRail who is up to no good, against potential whistle-blower Bob Jones. The barely disguised settings are found today at the California High Speed Rail Authority, except that a real whistle-blower has yet to emerge in Sacramento.

Parallels are hard to miss – such as Tom Bates using audaciousness and cunning to run a corrupt environmental review process that allows planners to secretly change train routings through towns. Based on the track record (pun intended) of the California High Speed Rail Authority, residents of many California communities can expect to be similarly bamboozled starting next year. (I won’t say how; you need to read the book.)

SpeedRail’s protective politicians and behind-the-scenes fat cats use their power to shove tracks onto anyone’s property; to take ever-increasing funds from the state and federal treasuries; and to intimidate detractors. The governor even gives Bates a state police badge and commensurate powers to use any time he wants to obstruct a critic.

That is a parallel to what happened last year when California High Speed Rail Authority officials, in a public meeting, directed two armed California Highway Patrol officers to intimidate a critic, Frank Olveira, who ran a few seconds over his 60-second speaking time. Don’t take my word for it – see the film clip. Will we see more of this in California when the protests becomes stronger and louder, as they certainly will?

SpeedRail’s deputy director, Bob Jones, suspects dishonest and illegal activities at the agency and begins to uncover “greed, deceit, graft, and backroom dealing” that accompanies $100 billion in “loosely supervised taxpayer money.” Just as in real life, suspicions about the Authority’s actions are motivating journalists, lawyers and public-spirited citizens to uncover wrongdoing at the California High Speed Rail Authority.

In the real project, state and federal money is also “loosely supervised.” Politicians will use “high-speed rail” money to pay for a new San Francisco subway, new BART cars, and upgrades to San Diego’s streetcars (despite the San Diego line having vanished from high-speed rail plans). Gov. Jerry Brown’s spending on such slow trains, about which he seems strangely proud, is more than asinine – it violates Proposition 1A and reflects misconduct similar to events in the book.

Midnight Departure is prescient in referring to the rail plan winning in the legislature by one vote. That slim margin is precisely what happened on July 5 when the California Senate passed a $4.7 billion bond measure for high-speed rail. California can’t afford such reckless spending, but, hey, it’s all for the “legacy” of both the fictional Governor and for Gov. Brown.

The author seems clairvoyant in relating Tom Bates’ smugness about California voters, who is satisfied about “how easily the public could be fooled into thinking that the new rail system, whatever it might end up costing, had no relationship to the bonds being issued, the debt being piled on.”

In real life, some rail promoters claimed before the November 2008 vote on Proposition 1A (which authorizes $10 billion in high-speed rail bond sales) that the program will not use tax money. Voters approved the ballot measure and it seems some people still don’t understand that their taxes will indeed pay for bond interest payments. The public in the book was as duped as was the public in real life.

SpeedRail bullies ahead despite objections, logic and the unaffordability of the project – just what we see with the current Authority plan to spend what will eventually amount to between $68 and $100 billion in public funds. The agency’s insensitivity is akin to what Gov. Brown demonstrated on July 18 when he signed the high-speed rail bill into law and in the process referred to critics as “NIMBYs,” “fearful men,” and “declinists.”

Don’t take my word for how awful the real California project is – simply review the many critical reports by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, State Treasurer, California High Speed Rail Peer Review Group, State Auditor, a State Senate Committee and independent reviews by academic experts at UCLA and UC Berkeley, business executives, attorneys and domestic and international financial experts.

Not up to reading all that? Well then, read Midnight Departure. In doing so, substitute for fictional political characters the names of real-life rail proponents.

By the way, most of the parallels I mentioned appear in the first half of the book. The second half is an action-oriented mystery, involving violence, that we all should hope never happens in California.