Tuesday, December 13, 2011





If there’s one thing that’s become completely clear about California’s proposed system of bullet trains, it’s this: If the project is ever built, it won’t look much like what voters approved in 2008, when they OK’d almost $10 billion worth of bonds to help pay for it.

That makes this system a classic consumer bait-and-switch. And that, in turn, makes it a strong political necessity for Gov. Jerry Brown and other state officials to put the whole idea before the voters one more time. If it’s certain that voters will never get what was sold to them, any truly honest government would give the electorate another chance to bless or nix the altered plan.

Sadly, such a vote is not likely to come soon. Its main proponents right now are Republican legislators, with state Sen. Doug LaMalfa, whose Northern California district would be untouched by this project, the leading advocate.

He complains voters were “deceived” in 2008, but is unlikely to get anywhere, in part because of his party's sorry record in the Legislature. Republicans there have been such constant and adamant obstructionists to almost all new ideas from Democrats that they can’t expect cooperation from the majority party even when they deserve it.

Some of the differences between the original proposal and the latest version put forward in the High Speed Rail Authority’s latest business plan are the price (almost three times higher at $98 billion), the speed (rather than a consistent 220 mph, speeds now would mostly be far lower), time of completion (2033, rather than the original 2020) and the type of track in urban areas. Instead of separate bullet train tracks, the HSR Authority now talks about running its trains on existing rights of way, which is bound to slow things down.

Amazingly, this business plan didn’t even discuss the most obviously needed change: A switch of the route up the San Joaquin Valley away from prime farmland and the cities of Fresno, Bakersfield, Madera and Merced to the Interstate 5 right of way that is already state-owned. There would be much less land to purchase this way, far fewer citizen protests and lawsuits to hold things up and no unrealistic expectations for hordes of passengers to board at intermediate points between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Nor did it mention the possibility of using cheaper and more modern and efficient technologies like Maglev tracking instead of standard rails.

Even without these potentially vast improvements in the plan, though, there still are good arguments for going ahead with it.

For one thing, high speed rail would likely relieve a lot of the need for new freeway and airport construction to accommodate the population expansion that every demographer expects over the next 20 years. For another, this project would create at least tens of thousands of new jobs, both temporary ones during construction and permanent ones afterwards. Yes, the HSR Authority claims its plan would create at least 100,000 jobs and maybe eventually 1 million, but those figures look like wildly optimistic stabs in the dark.

A third positive would be creation of a viable transportation alternative to driving long distances on some of the state’s busiest highways or coping with airport parking, crowds, security and waits. And fourth, about 3 billion federal dollars already are committed to this project; if it’s not built, all the jobs and other business benefits that money can create would disappear.

So California really does face a tough choice. Should it proceed with a project about which the highest state officials lied during the Arnold Schwarzenegger administration? Should it risk building a partial system, as now called for by the HSR Authority, in the hopes that this will attract private investment?

Or should the state abandon something that would put it close to a transportation par with countries like France, Germany, Spain, Japan and China, where trains also don’t generally run at 220 mph, but still get from city to city pretty darn fast? Should it abandon building new infrastructure that some believe would be a huge boon to the state’s overall economy?

Because there are valid points on both sides, it should be up to the public to decide. Even if it is mostly Republicans who now back that idea.

The argument that voters were asked this question and answered it years ago just does not wash. For the plan that the voters okayed didn’t look much like what it has now evolved into.

Nor does it wash to say this can’t be put up for a vote until next November, which would be past the deadline for breaking ground on any project using those already-committed federal funds. All it that’s needed is a legislative vote to put this before the voters again, either in the June primary election or in a special election before then.

So legislators, as the shoe commercials say, should just do it. If, that is, their top priority really is the interests of California and its voters.

Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

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