Pirates of the High Speed Rail

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

In the original Pirates of the Caribbean movie, the governor’s daughter Elizabeth Swann is kidnapped and brought aboard the pirate ship where she demands of the pirate captain Barbossa that she be returned to shore according to the Code of the Order of the Brethren, to which Barbossa responds: “The code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.”

Barbossa’s approach seems to have been adopted by the defenders of California’s High Speed Rail.

The language of the bond that authorized spending on the bullet train is being tested in court challenges. A front-page story in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times reports that many lawsuits are expected to arise over the specific language of the bond measure.

In an attempt to make sure the $9 billion bond passed muster with voters, the bond language made specific promises. As Times reporter Ralph Vartabedian wrote: “Voters were told that the high-speed trains would hit 220 mph, get from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes, operate without subsidies and obtain funding and environmental clearances for entire operating segments before construction.”

The rail’s chief proponent, Governor Jerry Brown, took steps to get around some environmental requirements. Valid questions have been raised if the completed train can meet its speed or travel time guarantees, and, perhaps most importantly of all, there is a real question if outside funding will assist in building the train or if the taxpayers will be on the hook for more than they pledged with the bond.

The Barbossa defense appeared in the article.

Rod Diridon, former chairman of the state’s rail agency said the language in the law provides “guidelines, not hard and fast rules. ” Richard Katz, former rail board member and state legislator, is quoted: “People voted for the concept of high-speed rail.”

If the plan was to see if the people liked the idea of a high speed rail then support for a concept should have been on the ballot. But the measure was a legal document , a contract, between the voters and state authorities. The voters would turn over their money if certain conditions were meet. The provisions were put in as a protection for taxpayers.

As former state senator Alan Lowenthal told the Times, “We didn’t put them in as guidelines…. It was really clear what we wanted.”

I faced a similar situation when as head of the taxpayers association a decade-and-a-half ago I supported a Los Angeles school bond on the condition that a taxpayers oversight committee would be consulted on the spending of the bond money. The oversight committee had been included in the local bond proposal to get voter acceptance of the bond.

Once the bond passed, the school board tried to push the oversight committee aside saying the committee could look at how the school board spent the bond money after it had been spent.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge threw out that rationale, saying the voters did not support an oversight committee simply to count the nails once they were pounded in.

Already one state judge said the state is not living up to the conditions in the high speed rail bond.

In the Pirates of the Caribbean film, hero Will Turner, in a confrontation with pirate captain Jack Sparrow, says, “You cheated.” Sparrow responds: “Pirate.” Voters will feel tricked if the rules within the bond are ignored and conclude that those involved with the train are a bunch of pirates.

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