The high-speed rail farce is dead.
Yes, they are still destroying prime San Joaquin Valley farmland building what likely will become a 119-mile scar on California’s heartland and its psyche.
But in reality, no one in Sacramento – even those that say they support for high-speed rail – has the stomach to pay the price to complete a rail system that arguably half of California would lack the financial wherewithal to ride.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, who knows a dead horse when he sees one, tried his best back in January to distance himself from the $90 billion fantasy turned nightmare that if allowed to go forward will become the earthly equivalent of a black hole sucking up billions as it grows and then billions more after it is up and running.
And when the Trump Administration pounced on the obvious and announced later the same day that the state was essentially reneging on the written commitment it made to secure Congressional approval for $3.5 billion in funds for the project, Newsom started wavering.
The governor accused Trump of playing politics. He accused Trump of political retribution for California filing a lawsuit every other day against his administrative directives, and said it was the state’s money – Congress said so and he’d go to court to defend the state.
Is anyone surprised that four months later when the Federal Rail Administration sent the state formal notice, they were cancelling the remaining $928.6 million payment and are considering options to get back the $2.5 billion back previously sent to California for the project, Newsom simply repeated his January rhetoric?
Remember that one of the conditions for the funding was that the state complete the first phase between Merced and Bakersfield by 2022.
The ineptness – and if it is not that, the outrageous lies – of the high-speed rail folks has led to timetable after timetable as well as spending projection after spending projection being blown.
Newsom blaming the Trump Administration of playing politics on this one ignores two not-so-subtle issues. First, when the Obama Administration was overseeing the Federal Rail Administration, they were the first to blow the whistle on the high-speed rail train that couldn’t. They had serious doubts more than five years ago that California would meet the 2022 deadline to compete the first phase as required under what one must assume is a legally binding agreement. We all know what the federal government does with our money if the IRS thinks we’re not meeting our legal financial obligations.
Second, Newsom had almost four months to come up with a fix for the problem.
But then again Newsom is smart enough to know that it is a problem that can’t be fixed. It is one thing to run roughshod over the weakest part of the state politically and economically. It’s another to mess with the well-financed, well-connected folks in the Los Angeles Basin or on the San Francisco Peninsula whose properties they’d have to seize and neighborhoods destroyed so fellow well-heeled folks can zoom on rail between LA and SF.
Then there is the little deal involving cost overruns. Pinocchio comes across as the young George Washington in comparison to high-speed rail folks. It’s gotten so bad the next time they issue a press release with an even higher updated cost projection and a timetable to compete work that is farther out they might want to play the theme song from “Mission Impossible” at the press conference given the new cost and timetable estimates will self-destruct in five seconds.
Newsom, at the very least, could have tossed high-speed rail another sacrificial cash cow to devour. The new budget projections for fiscal year 2019-20 shows the constitutional budget reserve will be at $14.5 billion and the unrestricted reserve will be at $15 billion.
Why not toss some or all of that $15 billion at high-speed rail?
Weren’t we told this was a life-and-death struggle to reduce greenhouse gas and to save the planet? Surely $15 billion would be a small price to pay for not funding new pet projects of the California Legislature. After all, spending $1 billion on housing for the homeless won’t do any good if the homeless are all dead thanks to rising seas, sky-high temperatures and the proverbial locust sweeping across the earth.
Newsom back in January uttered some complete nonsense about how the 119-mile first segment – assuming it is finished before the next Ice Age – will serve as a demonstration to private sector investors that high-speed rail works.
Here’s a news flash. They’ve seen how it works in other countries. But they also know firsthand what it is like to do business in California.
If the private sector had taken the bait back in 2008 when those singing the praises of high-speed rail told voters if they approve the $9.9 billion bond folks with money like Leonardo DiCaprio would sell off their gas guzzling exotic cars, mortgage their island retreats and drop private jets to fly tourist class to finance the rest of the cost so they could have a piece of the green – both from the environmental self-righteousness and profit angles – the Trump Administration would have been in no position to claw anything back. That’s because high-speed rail would not have been an even bigger fantasy today. It would have been reality.
Newsom has three choices.
He can drive the project forward into the Valley of Death – better known in the south state as the San Fernando Valley — where endless lawsuits will devour the high-speed charge.
He can pull the plug on the entire project and stop high speed rail from becoming a government agency that does a piranha act, not just on tax dollars to get it built but also on tax dollars to keep it up and running once it is built when Newsom’s great-great-granddaughter is governor.
Or he can get everyone to the table — the legislature, Amtrak, Union Pacific, bureaucrats, leaders of impacted cities and such — to see how what has been built by the time the first segment is finished can be salvaged and incorporated into a viable statewide rail plan minus the high-speed component.
It would not be a tough act to connect what is being built in the Sac Joaquin Valley from where it terminates in Merced to the ACE system. A plan was drafted for that purpose while the overall high-speed rail system was being completed to run passenger service from LA on an interim basis on ACE trains to San Jose as outlined in the ACE Forward endeavor. All it would take beyond what is now in works to Ceres is double tracking to Merced and proceeding with not one but two new lines straightening out the tracks over the Altamont. Freight and passenger trains between Merced and San Jose would share the tracks with each track dedicated to one-way traffic.
A connection with the LA Basin would also have to be made to the southern San Joaquin Valley.
Of course, if you simply want to be a political hack there is a fourth option. You can blame it all on Trump, who was in his fourth season as host of “The Apprentice” when California politicians told a bigger lie to California voters that makes the whoppers uttered these days around D.C. seem like the absolute truth in comparison.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Ceres Courier or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.