Locomotive politics

LaMalfa takes a stand against high-speed rail

Doug LaMalfa

Doug LaMalfa

PHOTO Courtesy of doug lamalfa

State Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, has stepped up his efforts to derail the state’s high-speed train project. Last week, Secretary of State Debra Bowen gave the go-ahead for him to start collecting signatures to place an initiative on the November ballot that asks voters if they want to pull the plug on the High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act.

LaMalfa and former California Congressman George Radanovich are the proponents of Senate Bill 985 that created the initiative. They now must collect the signatures of 504,760 registered voters by Aug. 13.

In 2008, California voters approved $9 billion in bonds to launch the project, which would connect San Francisco to Los Angeles via the Central Valley and be completed by 2020. Trains would run up to 220 mph on an 800-mile network of tracks, making the trip between the Bay Area and L.A. in two hours and 40 minutes. But the cost has zoomed, according to the state’s High Speed Rail Authority, from an estimated $45 billion to between $98 billion and $117 billion, and the finish date has been set back a few years. Still, Gov. Jerry Brown remains a strong supporter and the Obama administration has promised the state $3.5 billion in federal aid if the project begins this year.

In 2010, LaMalfa introduced Senate Bill 22 to end the bond process that would fund the train. But that bill has stalled, losing most recently on Jan. 10 on a 3-to-6 vote in the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. So LaMalfa, who is now running for the congressional seat long held by Wally Herger, wants to take the matter back to the voters.

The actual wording of the bill states that it “would provide that no further bonds shall be sold for high-speed rail and related rail purposes pursuant to the Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century. The bill would amend the bond act to authorize redirection of the net proceeds received from outstanding bonds issued and sold prior to the effective date of this act, upon appropriation by the Legislature, from those high-speed rail purposes to retiring the debt incurred from the issuance and sale of those outstanding bonds.”

High-speed rail is clearly a partisan issue, with progressives labeling it a much needed step into the future and conservatives like LaMalfa labeling it just another bureaucratic boondoggle.

On his website, LaMalfa comments on a report from the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office that says repealing the bond measure would save the state more than $709 million a year.

“This report should be an eye-opener for Californians impacted by Governor Brown’s cuts to core state services,” he writes. “The $709 million a year some would spend on high speed rail could more than offset last year’s cuts to the University of California, California State University or state community colleges.”

And a March 8 editorial in the Orange County Register headlined, “Moonbeam Express costs soar ever higher,” repeats that LaMalfa quote.

Actually, the report by the state legislative analyst and director of finance on the fiscal impact of SB 985 on the state and local governments if passed by voters says: “State debt-service savings of up to $709 million annually from not using state bond funds to support high-speed rail, depending on the actual reduction in bonds sold as a result of this measure. Unknown reduction in state and local revenues due to a somewhat lower level of economic activity in the state over the next several years, resulting from a loss of matching funds from the federal government or potential private investors.”

Earlier this year, Ray LaHood, the U.S. transportation secretary, paid a visit to California to assure Gov. Brown that the high-speed rail project had the president’s support. LaHood called it “good for the economy and the nation.”

In a prepared statement addressing the project’s spike in costs, Thomas Umberg, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said, “We don’t have many choices. We can do nothing and bury our heads in the sand. We can build more freeways and airports. Or we can do something visionary that transforms California’s transportation infrastructure.”

LaMalfa could not be reached by press time for a direct comment to the CN&R, but in another posting on his website he writes: “To be blunt, the California High Speed Rail Authority could give lessons to Third World dictators on the concept of public misinformation.”