Runaway train?

Could the high-speed train system derail the governor’s tax measure?

California’s high-speed-rail plan remains on track, thanks to whisker-thin approval in the state Senate, but it’s not hard to foresee derailment in the future. If it’s completed and actually works—two huge “ifs”—it will be a terrific alternative to cars and airplanes and could do wonders for the Central Valley and, indeed, the entire state, but it’s got so many financial and logistical uncertainties that it may never be finished.

In the short run it will be good for the state’s moribund economy, bringing in $3.2 billion in federal funds to augment the $2.6 billion in bond money to be spent on the initial parts of the project, which means lots of construction jobs. Nearly $2 billion of that will go to improving existing—and well-used—commuter rail service in the Bay Area and Los Angeles regions, money well spent.

But huge questions remain: Is the selected route through Fresno and other Central Valley cities the best one? Will the project overcome environmental concerns and the inevitable lawsuits? Will federal funding continue? Will the state’s population grow to 60 million by 2050, as predicted? Will the system, if built, attract sufficient riders to cover its costs, or even come close? Can California afford the debt service on the bonds, when it’s running a persistent budget deficit, now at $8 billion?

But the biggest question, at least in the short term, is whether voters will be supportive of Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax measure on the November ballot knowing that he’s signed off on the sale of the HSR bonds. If the state’s in such dire straits financially, some of them well might ask, why is it spending so much money on this grandiose project?

The governor’s argument is a straightforward one: If not now, when? California will grow, and that growth will require expensive investment in transportation infrastructure, whether it’s highways, airports or a high-speed-rail line. We might as well take advantage of the federal funds available—and low interest rates—and start creating that infrastructure now.

Give him credit for courage. He knows the risk he’s taking here. He knows how important the tax measure is, how painful it will be to cut the budget further if the measure fails. He no doubt would have preferred not to have to take action on HSR at this point. But the feds forced his hand, saying a decision had to be made right away or the funding would go elsewhere, and Brown refused to give up on HSR. He wants it to be his legacy.

I wish I shared his confidence. I certainly hope it succeeds. Most of all, I hope it doesn’t stop people from voting for his tax measure. The initial investment in HSR is small compared to the revenues the measure would bring in. As the governor has said, most of the cuts will be in the schools’ budget. That’s not a threat, it’s reality. And it will hurt.

Robert Speer is editor of the CN&R.