It has often been said that in life, timing is everything. Those supporting an initiative to divert money dedicated from high speed rail bonds to water storage projects likely will embrace that bit of wisdom with the revelation that the Central Valley segment of the bullet train is now facing a potential cost overrun of $260-million or a 5 percent increase over projected costs.
The Los Angeles Time article, reporting on this news, noted that experts agreed, “The increase, coming so early in construction, is a warning sign that costs will continue to rise.”
Cost projections already are more than double the $33 billion figure promised California voters when they went to the polls to narrowly approve the high speed rail bonds in the 2008 election. That thin support has melted away like the Wicked Witch of the West under a deluge of troubling financial exposes.
The signature gatherers attempting to secure the 585,000 valid signatures needed to put the measure before voters can wave this new development of increased costs at potential petition signers and deliver a simple message: “We told you so– the costs are only going up!”
That message could well carry through to the November election. A Stanford poll from the Hoover Institution recently asked about transferring the bullet train money to water projects. In the midst of a prolonged drought, poll respondents generally thought that was a good idea.
While the rail authority argues the talk of increased cost is only adding to a contingency fund, the fact that the disclosure of higher costs only a short time after rail authority officials told a legislative hearing that costs were under control will further undermine any confidence in the cost numbers presented to the public.
Big money could prolong the battle over the high speed rail if the measure qualifies for the ballot. Well-off construction companies want the track laid so that they may grab a piece of the money pie. The California Water Alliance, which represents the agriculture industry that desperately wants water, is backing the initiative’s proponents, state Senator Bob Huff, and Board of Equalization member George Runner.
How much this measure could be affected by news seven months from now is unknown. If the drought is declared over, or at least manageable, because of winter storms, would recent memories of the drought keep voters concerned about making water more available?
Will the rail authority find a way to save money or will more cost overrun stories throw barriers across the tracks.
Looking back over the promises made to voters eight years ago and the way cost questions have played out since, the new revelation of a possible cost overrun probably has the public ready to make the decision to kill the bullet train.