Hit the brakes on the bullet train

Capitol Journal

Gov. Jerry Brown was right on track when he told reporters at his budget unveiling that “We’ve got to bite the bullet.”

It was the perfect choice of a word. But, of course, Brown didn’t mean “bullet” the way I wanted him to.

Brown was talking about sucking it up and again butchering programs for welfare families and the aged, blind and disabled.


And if voters refuse to pass his tax increases in November, he’ll try to whack education from kindergarten through graduate school while crippling courts and even eliminating lifeguards at beaches.

But the governor also should have been applying the brakes to the ill-planned bullet train that he covets.

“We have to hold the line on spending and make the tough cuts,” he said in proposing a $137.3-billion budget for the next fiscal year, including $92.6 billion for the deficit-plagued general fund.

“We can’t spend what we don’t have. It’s not nice, we don’t like it, but….

“I mean, we’re in a box…. We have more needs, desires and demands than the money available. So we have to now reduce needs, reduce demands and reduce desires…. We’ve got to bite the bullet.”


We don’t necessarily need to demolish the ambitious train project. But we should park it in a shed for a while. Figure out exactly where it’s going, how it’s going to get there and who’s going to pay for it.

Make sure the bullet’s not a boondoggle before it burns up billions.

State Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) has the right idea. “Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast,” he says.


“I’m increasingly inclined to think we ought to take a deep breath, take a step back and think this through more deliberately. Maybe that means a one-year time out.

“As a concept, as a goal, high-speed rail could serve the state well. But early on there were missteps. It needs to be done right. To date, the project hasn’t been done right.”

Brown did exercise some caution in his budget proposal.

He asked for $16 million basically to keep the doors open at the California High Speed Rail Authority. Also, he called for selling $61 million in bonds to pay for project preparations. But the authority is counting on a big $2.7-billion bond sale to combine with $3.3 billion in federal grants to begin laying 130 miles of track in the San Joaquin Valley.

As a condition for their money, the feds insist on starting the project in the valley — land’s cheaper there — and breaking ground by September.

“Whenever someone tells me, ‘Act now, a one-time-only deal,’ it’s time to take a pause,” Simitian says.

The governor’s finance department is reviewing the rail authority’s revised business plan. Brown won’t decide whether to propose the $2.7-billion bond sale until that’s completed, says department spokesman H.D. Palmer. “We’re not going into the deep end until we review that plan.”


Debt payment on the $2.7 billion would be roughly $180 million annually for 30 years.

But Brown has left no doubt that he intends to build the bullet train. He seems to consider it a legacy-builder.

Even while slashing government services, Brown told reporters, “We are going to have some bold moves: investment in high-speed rail and water, greenhouse gas reduction, alternative energy. So we are not just going to stay put. This is not a stand-pat [budget]….

“There are a few people, some of them who are hankering after life in Texas, who call California a failed state. We are the innovative state.”

At a year-end news conference, Brown had declared: “I’m not a declinist [who] thinks that California is in decline, [that] we have to suck it all in and become a second-rate society or economy. Spain, China, Japan, France, Germany — all these countries can afford [high-speed rail]. California, I believe, can.”

Those countries, unlike California, probably aren’t burdened by a two-thirds legislative vote requirement for tax increases. Congress certainly wasn’t when it levied a fuel tax to build the interstate highway system.

Brown doesn’t seem to notice the inconsistency of asserting that California must “reduce desires” while arguing that we should be “bold” and build a bullet train. He changes his tune depending on the lyrics.


But let’s back up to 2008.

Voters were told that the completed high-speed rail project — including service from San Francisco and Sacramento to Los Angeles and on to San Diego — would cost $45 billion. The price tag for the first phase — San Francisco to Anaheim — was $33 billion. The state would foot nearly $10 billion with bond money and the rest would come from Washington and private investments.

Voters bought it by a 5% margin.

Starting construction in San Joaquin Valley farm fields — rather than in high-ridership Los Angeles or San Francisco — always has been controversial. Then in November we learned that the first-phase cost had tripled to $98.5 billion. Beyond the initial $3.3 billion from Washington, no other federal money was on the horizon. And no private investors were in sight.

State Sen. Doug La Malfa (R-Richvale) advocates sending the issue back to voters. A Field Poll last month found that in a revote, the rail bond would fail by nearly 2 to 1.

“I’m not anti-rail, anti-new ideas,” La Malfa says, “but this has to adhere to some type of sensible business plan. Voters were misled.”

Last week, an independent panel of experts created by the rail bond act concluded that the plan “is not financially feasible.” It declined to recommend the bond sale. Other nonpartisan analyses also have been negative.

Brown should bite the bullet, recalibrate and make sure the state isn’t headed for a fiscal train wreck.