Brown needn’t have worried about Washington Post’s bullet-train story

bullet.trainThe most interesting part of the Sacramento Bee story Friday about Gov. Jerry Brown releasing 113 pages of emails from his private account was his apparent anxiety over what a Washington Post story had to say about the state’s bullet-train project. At 10:16 p.m. Jan. 5, Brown sent out a two-word email:

“You up??” he asked his press secretary, Evan Westrup.

Nearly 45 minutes later, Westrup sent Brown and first lady Anne Gust Brown a copy of a Washington Post story on California’s high-speed rail project.

They needn’t have worried. This long Jan. 5 story by Post national reporter Reid Wilson appears to be the one Westrup sent the Browns, and it largely accepts the governor’s characterization of the project’s relative progress and downplays legal challenges.

The groundbreaking “really marks the transition from all the planning and appropriations and legal challenges and the design work to continuous construction,” said Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the project’s governing body. “It’s a significant milestone.”

Financing problems were acknowledged, at least.

Even with the legal and political victories, the funding structure is incomplete. Voters approved a $9.95 billion bond aimed at funding the initial construction of the rail project in 2008, by a slim five-point margin. The Obama administration added another $3.2 billion in federal grants, and the legislature agreed in 2014 to provide funding through cap-and-trade taxes on greenhouse gases, which will add another $250 million to $1 billion per year.

Still, that means the rail authority will have about $26 billion at best, less than half the estimated total costs.

Touting the Japanese financing model

But the reporter’s lack of background on the issue led him to accept uncritically Richard’s theory about how the project could be partially funded.

Richard, chairman of the rail authority, said his agency doesn’t expect federal funding in the next four to five years. He pointed to Japan, where nearly a third of funding for high-speed rail projects comes from real estate development near rail stations.

But the state government needs the money up front, not after the system is up and running — specifically $31 billion for the initial 300-mile operating segment, per a Superior Court ruling that Attorney General Kamala Harris chose not to appeal.

It’s interesting how East Coast reporters seem more likely than East Coast opinion writers to accept upbeat takes on the Golden State’s most costly infrastructure project. Both the Washington Post’s editorial page and Post editorial writer/columnist Charles Lane have expressed incredulity at the state’s handling of the project.

Failing the ‘best evidence’ standard

Here’s the opening of a tart Lane column from Jan. 9, 2012:

In announcing the appointment of a new economic adviser last summer, President Obama emphasized his commitment to fact-based policymaking. It’s “more important than ever,” he said, to get “recommendations not based on politics, not based on narrow interests, but based on the best evidence, based on what’s going to do the most good for the most people in this country.”

If only the president and his political ally, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), would follow that advice regarding their pet project for the Golden State: high-speed rail. No matter how many times they tout the mega-project as the job-creating wave of the future, they can’t change the mountain of evidence that high-speed rail is, in fact, a boondoggle.

You can read the whole Lane op-ed here.

A May 18, 2011, Post editorial — link here — was even harsher.

California may be about to spend a fortune to plan and build a stretch of high-speed track that would end up as a railroad to nowhere in the all-too-likely event that funding for the rest of the system never materializes. But the LAO, the state-level equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office, argues that the legislature should halt most further spending on the project and not start construction until the state can negotiate more flexible terms from the federal government and — crucially — relocate the first section to a route where a fast train would be economically viable even if the entire system never gets built.

There is a certain poignancy to the LAO’s plea for everyone to stop and think. The benefits of high-speed rail in California might indeed outweigh the costs, the LAO notes, but “at this time there is little reliable information to inform this decision.” Think about that for a minute: Fifteen years have passed, and millions of dollars have been spent on studies since the state first passed a law creating a high-speed rail program. Yet after all that, no one really knows whether it’s worth doing. If no one has come up with a convincing rationale by now, maybe there isn’t one.

Maybe this Post coverage is what made the governor anxious about the newspaper’s coverage of his project’s groundbreaking ceremonies.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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