Guest opinion: More spin than substance in latest rail plan
On April 2, the California High-Speed Rail Authority released its "revised" business plan (its fourth). This plan is essentially the same as the prior plan, which was found to be fatally defective under Proposition 1A by the three agencies charged with oversight: the Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO), the State Auditor, and the Peer Review Group. These same defects continue to exist, and therefore no money should be taken from Prop. 1A and given to the authority for the Central Valley project, the place where construction is proposed to start.
Here's the basic problem: Prop. 1A is supposed to provide money for a true high-speed rail system — nothing else. But no true high-speed rail system is proposed to be built. Instead, the authority is going to spend all the money that it has ($3.5 billion from the feds and $2.5 billion that it will try to get from Prop 1A) on a 130-mile "initial segment" that is conventional rail only — not electrified (required by Prop 1A), no high-speed trackage, no lightweight special rolling stock, none of the traditional components of a true high-speed rail system. The rationale is that this is "preliminary" only, that it will "lead to" a true high-speed rail system someday, and that this is just the "first piece" of the overall statewide system. Using similar logic, the authority is now trying all over the state (the Peninsula included) to raid Prop 1A to aid local commuter services and transit agencies, saying that their "improvement" is just the first step towards bringing true high-speed rail to the regions. This won't fly.
The voters, in approving Prop 1A , only voted for the money to be spent on true HSR, not some preliminary improvement to a local commuter service made up of conventional rail equipment. Applying the authority's logic, the entire $9 billion in Prop. 1A would be frittered away all over the state in these preliminary projects before one foot of true high-speed trackage is laid. If the authority wants to operate this way, it should put Prop. 1A back before the voters and ask if they want their money spent in this way. Shall we guess the answer? The last Field Poll said that two-thirds of the voters want high-speed rail stopped dead in its tracks.
But, there are further fundamental problems as to why Prop. 1A cannot be used for the new plan: Prop. 1A does envision the project being built in "pieces" or segments. But, those segments each have to be "usable segments," meaning that they have to be true high-speed rail segments, with all the components of a true high-speed rail system and with at least two high-speed rail stations at each end. The funding and financial requirements are rigorous. The authority is first required to describe the "usable segment" that it proposes to build. It then must demonstrate that it has the money in the bank, or immediately accessible, to complete that particular segment. This is designed to protect the state from the financial risk of an uncompleted or abandoned project. The revised business plan indicates that the "usable segment," which the authority plans to build, runs from the Central Valley to the Los Angeles basin and will cost an additional $25 billion on top of the $6 billion for the initial (conventional) segment. That $25 billion is non-existent; there is no hope that it will come from the federal government — the House has expressly announced that California will not get one more dime for high-speed rail. It is pure speculation to say that in the future, the feds will come forth with tens of billions for California HSR. No other source of funding is available, and cap and trade cannot work because it would be illegal to do so. This fundamental funding requirement of Prop 1A (enough money has to be in the bank to complete the segment) has not, and cannot, be met, and therefore no Prop. 1A funds whatsoever can be given to the authority for the Central Valley. This exact same defect was noted by the government oversight bodies with respect to the previous business plan. The high-speed rail emperor still has no clothes.
As former high-speed rail board member and chairman Quentin Kopp recently said, this attempted illegal raid on Prop. 1A is the "greatest train robbery" in California history. I agree. The authority is engaging in high-speed spin in its effort to pull a high-speed scam on the citizens of California.
Michael J. Brady is a Redwood City attorney who writes frequently on high-speed rail matters.