Democratic candidates for governor must contend with bullet-train difficulties

The March 9 release of the first updated business plan in two years for the state’s high-speed rail project could sharply intensify the pressure on Democratic gubernatorial candidates who back the project to explain their support.

The Republican candidates – Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach and Rancho Santa Fe businessman John Cox – reflect the GOP consensus that the project is a boondoggle that’s unlikely to ever be completed. But the major Democratic hopefuls – Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, state Treasurer John Chiang and former Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin – have all indicated they would continue with rail project, albeit with little of the enthusiasm shown by present Gov. Jerry Brown.

While the new business plan was depicted by the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s new CEO, Brian Kelly, as a constructive step toward salvaging the project, the plan’s key details were daunting:

The estimated cost of the project, which has yo-yoed from $34 billion to $98 billion to $64 billion, changed once again. The business plan abandoned the previous $64 billion estimate for an estimate of $77 billion – accompanied by a warning that the cost could go as high as $98 billion.

Even at the lower price tag, the state didn’t have adequate funds to complete a first $20 billion-plus bullet-train segment linking populated areas. The present plan for a Central Valley route has an eastern terminus in a remote agricultural field north of Shafter. That’s because the $9.95 billion in bond seed money that state voters provided in 2008 has only been buttressed to a relatively slight degree by additional public dollars from cap-and-trade pollution permits.

The business plan cites the possibility of additional federal funds beyond the $3.3 billion allocated by Washington early in the Obama administration. It doesn’t note, however, that domestic discretionary spending has plunged in recent years amid congressional concern about the national debt blowing past $20 trillion.

The business plan also promotes the possibility of outside investors. It doesn’t mention that such investors have passed on the project for years because state law bars the California High-Speed Rail Authority from offering them a revenue or ridership guarantee.

From 5 years behind schedule to 10 years behind

The initial operation of a bullet-train link serving California residents went from five years behind schedule, in the estimate of the Los Angeles Times, to 10 years behind schedule. The business plan said the project would begin operations no sooner than 2029.

The potential immense cost overrun of the bullet train segment in the mountains north of Los Angeles was fully acknowledged for the first time. A 2015 Times story laid out the “monumental” challenge.

Democratic candidates to succeed Brown have chosen to focus on housing, single-payer health care, immigration and criticism of President Donald Trump in most early forums and campaign appearances. But front-runners Newsom and Villaraigosa in particular seem likely to be pressed on how they can square their claims to be experienced, tough-minded managers with support for a project which seems less likely to be completed with every passing year.

Proposition 70 on the June primary ballot also will keep the bullet train on the campaign’s front burner, to some extent. It was placed on the ballot as part of a 2017 deal cut by the governor to extend the state’s cap-and-trade program until 2030. If Proposition 70 passed, it would require a one-off vote in 2024 in which cap-and-trade proceeds could only be used for specific needs with two-thirds support of each house of the Legislature. Republicans may be able to use these votes to shut off the last ongoing source of new revenue for the high-speed rail project.

9 comments

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  1. Richard Rider
    Richard Rider 16 March, 2018, 11:31

    RE: Headline — better than be “content” with the HSR, Democrat candidates need to CONTEND with this boondoogle. But maybe “content” is a more accurate discription of the position they may well take. 😉

    Reply this comment
  2. Ronald Stein
    Ronald Stein 16 March, 2018, 11:44

    It’s hard to understand the time, efforts, and funds being extended on the bullet train and the subject of “sanctuary” and the use of public monies to fund protection of illegals when California has many other challenges on its plate some of which have grown under the leadership of Governor Brown and Senator Kevin De Leon.

    Here’s what is really UP in California today: ENERGY COSTS, POVERTY, HOMELESSNESS, WELFARE, and UNFUNDED PENSION LIABILITES. California’s homeless and poverty population trends are “SUPPOSED” to be up as there’s nothing to stop the “causes”.

    Our growing population of the financially challenged includes: 1) nearly 25% of Californians 38 million live below the poverty line. 2) California has more than 33% of the nation’s welfare recipients, 3) California is home to 12% of the nation’s population, but startlingly 21% of the nation’s homeless population, 4) The majority of California renters: Nearly 3 million households – pay more than 30% of their income toward rent, 5) Roughly – 1.5 million households pay more than 50% of their income toward rent, and 6) Unfunded pension liabilities. It’s unfortunate that future generations, unable to vote today, will bear the costs of many enacted entitlements and boondoggle projects. Even before those young folks can vote, our Golden State schools are on track to force substantial budgetary cutbacks on core education spending, as public schools around California are bracing for a crisis driven by skyrocketing worker pension costs that are expected to force districts to divert billions of dollars.

    We would appreciate our representatives’ energies to stop pursuing discretionary causes and pet projects and come to grips with the real problems facing all Californians.

    Reply this comment
    • JPR
      JPR 17 March, 2018, 16:56

      Outstanding commentary!

      Reply this comment
    • Don B
      Don B 20 March, 2018, 21:48

      Ronald Stein…on target. My wife and I are retirees living on just over 40% of our mutual income pre-retirement. Thankfully, we paid our mortgage off before we retired or for sure we wouldn’t make the payments. If we could, we would move out of CA principally due to the leftist, socialist liberal government leadership, the high cost of living, sanctuary state status for illegals, and taxes…even taxing cattlemen and dairies for cow’s farting. And, I don’t expect any change. Too many low income welfare dependant and illegals who will cast their votes along with the Hollyweiders to keep Democrats in office.

      Reply this comment
  3. Leaving Soon
    Leaving Soon 16 March, 2018, 11:45

    Contend?

    Reply this comment
  4. Dude McCool
    Dude McCool 16 March, 2018, 21:28

    “…must contenD….”

    Reply this comment
  5. Wrong Road 66
    Wrong Road 66 17 March, 2018, 16:48

    I strongly request a rewrite of the justification. How does a thousand daily riders justify $100B? How does the system attract air passengers? What is the estimated cost per rider? What is the estimated operating cost? I would suggest this is another Senator Beall union spending Folly.

    Reply this comment
  6. Don B
    Don B 20 March, 2018, 22:25

    Ronald Stein…on target. My wife and I are retirees living on just over 40% of our mutual income pre-retirement. Thankfully, we paid our mortgage off before we retired or for sure we wouldn’t make the payments. If we could, we would move out of CA principally due to the leftist, socialist liberal government leadership, the high cost of living, sanctuary state status for illegals, and taxes…even taxing cattlemen and dairies for cow’s farting. And, I don’t expect any change. Too many low income welfare dependant and illegals who will cast their votes along with the Hollyweiders to keep Democrats in office.

    Reply this comment
  7. Esquire
    Esquire 29 April, 2018, 00:11

    HSR is the future of transportation and our next governor must support it.

    Reply this comment

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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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