Timing is not so swift

It would place California on the cutting edge of transportation in America. It would be a job creator. Environmentally clean. And fun.

But can we afford it?

The state is essentially broke and running on red ink. School and health programs already have been cut, and more slashing seems inevitable. The economy is sputtering, and tax revenues are tanking.

Capitol politicians are gridlocked -- have been for years -- on how to honestly balance the state’s books.


Is this any time for the state to start building a very expensive high-speed rail line to carry people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2 1/2 hours?

That’s the question Californians are being asked by Proposition 1A, which would authorize a $9.95-billion bond issue to serve as a down payment on an electric bullet train, the first in the nation.

The initial phase, a line from Anaheim to San Francisco via the San Joaquin Valley, would cost an estimated $33 billion. Federal, local and private money would pay for $24 billion, but none has been committed.

Ultimately, train backers say, the line would be extended south to San Diego and north to Sacramento. (The initial line would veer west near Merced and climb over the Pacheco Pass to the Bay Area.) The second phase would cost an additional $12 billion. But the timing and the financing are very iffy.

Wouldn’t it be prudent to hold off launching this ambitious project until the economy rebounds and Sacramento, presumably, returns to living within its means? And the Capitol gets its fiscal act together?

To the contrary, say backers, now is exactly the time to begin building.

“Bad economic times are when you want to create jobs,” says Rod Diridon of San Jose, former board chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority and a tenacious advocate of the bullet train.

“This is a jobs bill. It’s the same thing FDR did in the 1930s -- put a substantial amount of money into building facilities. That creates economic vitality and commerce.”

It was easier for FDR. The federal government can print money. States must balance their budgets, at least ostensibly.

Backers contend that the project would create 160,000 construction-related jobs. That’s why a coalition of 2,000 heavy construction companies and 80,000 union workers -- called the California Alliance for Jobs -- is a staunch supporter of Prop. 1A.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not officially endorsed the measure. But he virtually did while answering questions following a speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Sept. 26.

“Just because we had a problem with the budget does not mean that people should vote ‘no’ on the rail system,” the governor said. “We need high-speed rail.

“Our rail system in America is so old we are driving the same speed we did 100 years ago. . . . If we want to have mass transportation, we should modernize those things. . . . All over the world we see high-speed rails. . . . We should start here and show leadership and show the rest of the country how to do it.”

The same for building new water facilities, he said. The state should not hold back on projects “that are good for the future” just because the Capitol is spewing red ink. “Budget crises in California come and go.”

But there’s a significant difference between a necessity such as water and a luxury like a 200 mph bullet train. Schwarzenegger also has been pressing for a future bond issue in the $11-billion range to update California’s aging, inadequate, eco-destroying water system.

There needs to be more prioritizing.

The state currently owes about $53 billion on infrastructure bonds and still has $68 billion authorized but unsold. Each $1 billion borrowed requires an annual $65 million check written off the general fund. The state currently is paying $6.7 billion annually in principal and interest on bonds.

The bullet train bonds, assuming a 30-year payoff, would cost the general fund an average $647 million per year in principal and interest totaling $19.4 billion.

The Prop. 1A camp advertises that the 800-mile rail line would be built “without raising taxes.” That’s one of its problems: no dedicated revenue source, unlike previous great public works. Pat Brown’s water project was financed primarily by irrigation districts and municipalities contracting for the water. The freeway system was financed by taxes paid at the gas pump.

The bullet bonds would drain money from other general fund programs: education, healthcare, welfare, prisons, parks.

Also, while all Californians would pay, only those living along the line could easily ride.

And ridership has been wildly overestimated, professor James Moore, director of USC’s transportation engineering program, recently told Times reporter Eric Bailey. So have construction costs, train speeds, travel time and profit forecasts, he continued. “It’s a dumb project.”

A report by the Reason Foundation, a Libertarian think tank, contended the rail line could wind up costing up to $81 billion and lose $4 billion annually.

“The current high-speed rail plan is a fairy tale,” wrote Adrian Moore, the study’s director.

The high-speed rail authority disputes all that. But it failed to prepare an updated business plan by Sept. 1, as ordered by the Legislature. That’s because the state budget didn’t get enacted until Sept. 23 -- 85 days late -- and the authority didn’t have enough money for the updating, it says.

They’re working on a revised plan, but it probably won’t be ready until after the Nov. 4 election.

So the Capitol is dysfunctional and the rail plan is outdated. Those aren’t public confidence builders.

Actually, I’m confident the bullet train would work fine. It would be a terrific alternative to miserable air travel on airlines that treat passengers like cattle, or to long, boring, hazardous car trips. A rolling “Field of Dreams” -- build it and they will ride.

I’m just not confident of the shaky financing or that California, given the difficulty of raising taxes, can afford this luxury without sacrificing genuine necessities. It’s a shame the state has fallen into that position, but it’s the reality.