Trophy train project, legacy for lawmakers

by Katy Grimes | July 9, 2012 10:13 am

July 9, 2012

By Katy Grimes

SACRAMENTO — After listening to two days last week of floor debate in the California Assembly and Senate, it became painfully obvious that the vote on the state’s high-speed train was nothing more than a legacy vote for politicians.


Passage of SB 1029[2] approved $8 billion for high speed rail, and transfers control of funding and local transportation projects to the High Speed Rail Authority until 2018.

The bullet train is merely a political victory, and not really about California’s transportation needs. It is also a victory, and a gigantic gift, to labor unions.

Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Los Angeles, claimed that building the high-speed train system would be the answer to the state’s economic crisis. And he wasn’t alone in this claim. Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, said that the state would reap tax revenue for putting people back to work.

But at what cost?

Blumenfield also claimed, “With lower construction costs, we will get more for our dollars. Rail is the least expensive option,” as opposed to adding lanes to freeways, or runways to airports.

During Assembly and Senate floor debate and speeches, Democrats repeatedly said, “This is our moment.” They talked of the significance of voting for the biggest infrastructure project in California history. And they blathered incessantly of their own importance in voting for the project.

Lawmakers also talked about how high-speed rail is predominantly used in Europe, but ignored that 90 percent of Europe is in the middle of a very serious financial crisis, largely because of runaway subsidies and entitlements.

“Japan has high-speed rail. Bulgaria has high-speed rail,” Blumenfield said. He even said that Bulgaria was laughing at us because we don’t have a bullet train.

But Blumentield neglected to divulge how bad Bulgaria’s economy is.

“According to Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian analyst, optimistic forecasters had the big hope 20 years ago that Bulgaria might become like Greece,” The Economist[3] recently reported. “That is to say, ‘moderately democratic, but moderately corrupt.’ Now, he says, they hope that Greece may become like Bulgaria: poor, but financially disciplined and not making too big a mess for others.”

“So far Bulgaria has weathered the economic and euro crisis. Unemployment has crept up to 12 percent, but that is half the levels in Greece and Serbia. Over a million Bulgarians are thought to live abroad, working especially in Spain and Greece,” the story reported.

But, they have high-speed rail.

Blumenfield erroneously claimed that “revenues generated from this project will more than pay for bond debt.” But as with the highly suspect ridership estimates, claims of revenue generation from the train system are dubious–especially given the nearly 100 percent subsidies required for every other high-speed train system in the world.

And then there were the patently absurd comments: “Cars represent the past,” said Assemblyman Warren Furutani, D-San Pedro.

Denial: the elephant in the room

What Democrats refused to talk about was the cost to taxpayers, or the other programs that will have to be cut to pay for the behemoth train system.

“A recent Field Poll found that voters are connecting the dots from debt to taxes much quicker than their elected officials,” Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point said in a Flash Report op-ed[4]. Harkey has been consistent with her warnings about the real cost of high-speed rail to California taxpayers. She has presented facts, studies, and real cost numbers, but her warnings have been ignored.

“Governor Brown and many Sacramento Democrats seem unable to set priorities even though the state is bankrupt, boasts the lowest credit rating in the nation, must borrow $10 billion for short-term cash flow needs, while cutting public safety dollars and practicing ‘catch and release’ for state prisoners,” Harkey said[5]. “We rank near the bottom of the 50 states in public education achievement and the Sacramento solution is to realign that function and implement trigger cuts IF voters don’t agree to raise taxes in November.  But, billions in debt funding for one hundred miles of track with no train, no ridership and no cost analysis is still on the table.”

 Premature celebration

The post-high-speed rail vote celebration on Friday by Democrats should tell voters everything they need to know before voting in November. California’s elected politicians are celebrating bankrupting California.

“Rather than dealing with the issues before us, the legislative Democrats are just piling on the debt, without any regard for those who will have to pay back this money and how it will impact schools, health care programs, and public safety,” said Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale.

LaMalfa has commented many times about the moving target of the high-speed rail budget, and the growing price tag. “In 2008, it was $34 billion; 2009, $43 billion; 2011, it was $98.5 billion, and somehow dropped to $68-$75 billion,” La Malfa recently told me. But even with a $68 billion price tag, there is a $54.60 billion gap between the $9.9 billion in bonds voters approved in 2008, and the total estimated cost.

LaMalfa asked his colleagues Friday to vote to put high-speed rail back on the ballot so that voters could have another chance to speak. But his motion was killed by Senate Democrats along party lines.

California is a fiscal mess

Consider this:

* Unemployment is still 10.8 percent in California, and as high as 20 percent in some Central Valley counties.

* 34 percent of the nation’s welfare is distributed in California.

* Crucial state infrastructure is deteriorating. Highways, freeways, roads, public schools, bridges, water storage and levies, have all been largely ignored by state officials, despite collecting taxes for these.

* The California public employee pension system is currently underwater by half a trillion dollars.

* The state’s K-12 educational system sits at the bottom of the nation in performance and test scores. The governor’s education cuts include shortening the public school year by three weeks.

* California is a safe-haven for illegal immigrants. There is even talk in the Legislature of declaring California a “sanctuary state.”

California was once the envy of the nation; now it is a cesspool of corruption, destroyed by soulless Democrats and cowardly Republicans.

California politicians won’t spend the funds collected from taxpayers to maintain the many crumbling roads and bridges used by millions of drivers every day. Maintenance apparently doesn’t buy votes. Instead, politicians voted last week to spend tens of billions of dollars to build a bullet train in the Central Valley that won’t be used by many people.

The numerous lawsuits against high-speed rail will continue, and could put a wrench in construction plans. And the ballot initiative to kill high-speed rail and stop the state from collecting and spending high-speed rail bond money, was approved for signature gathering.

Backers of the initiative say it could still stop construction crews from breaking ground in Fresno later this year. Despite that, the repeal initiative won’t be on the ballot until 2014.

Legislative celebrations were premature

Some are suggesting that an amendment to the California Constitution could be the result of this vote, requiring a two-thirds majority vote for any project that costs more than $1 billion, and/or takes more than 2 years to complete.

“On the same week we have new survey results that highlight the link between voters’ declining support for new taxes should High-Speed Rail be forced upon us, the legislative Democrats have done precisely that–forced High-Speed Rail upon us,” said Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar.

“The voters want a do-over on High-Speed Rail, but the Democrats blocked legislation for a new  HSR ballot measure. The voters want pension reform, but the Democrats have blocked an up-or-down vote on their own governor’s plan.”

The polls also continue to show us that California voters don’t like the trigger cuts to education, but the Democrats have are threatening the public with exactly those cuts should voters not agree to their tax increase,” Huff continued. “Closing schools for three weeks, while spending $8 billion on 130 miles of train tracks, defies logic and is irresponsible.”

Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, one of four Democrats to vote against the bill, had one of the most reasoned arguments: “We’re getting an upgraded Amtrak in the Central Valley for $6 billion.”

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  4. Flash Report op-ed:
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