The Sacramento Bee: What will high-speed rail vote really buy?

July 13, 2012 

OK, so the state Senate, by the narrowest of margins, has approved spending for an initial, 130-mile segment of the bullet train that Gov. Jerry Brown so earnestly wants to build.

Where do we buy tickets? Of course, that's just facetious. Chances are fairly strong that Brown will never live to see the northern and southern halves of the state linked by a 200-mph bullet train, or anyone else on the high side of 60 years old.

In fact, children still yet to be born may never ride such a train.

The Senate's vote last week merely authorized the California High-Speed Rail Authority to begin work on that initial stretch of track in the San Joaquin Valley, from somewhere north of Fresno to near Bakersfield, financed with a federal grant and some state bonds.

However, as the authorizing legislation restated, the authority can't spend the money without obtaining environmental clearances, and pending lawsuits could tie up the project for years.

Think of the project to rebuild just a portion of the San Francisco Bay Bridge that was authorized after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It's now 23 years later, the work is still going on, and the costs have tripled from original estimates.

Speaking of which, even if the authority were to build that initial segment, it's almost useless unless the state can line up financing to connect it to the Bay Area. There is absolutely no money in the pipeline for that connection from either governmental or private sources.

We could, therefore, wind up with 130 miles of track that would, indeed, be the train to nowhere.

And that brings us to what may have been the game all along -- spending not on the bullet train itself but on so-called "connectivity" projects in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Last week's bill spends heavily on such things as electrifying commuter rail service on the San Francisco Peninsula, a subway in San Francisco, new cars for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system and upgrades for Southern California's Metrolink rail service.

Those inclusions were aimed, of course, at garnering urban senators' votes, but they also fuel conjecture among those close to the project that one goal of the bullet train bond issue was to lure voters from throughout the state into spending their money on urban transit services that they would be otherwise unwilling to finance.

The net result, therefore, may be easier commutes for residents of those areas and almost nothing else.

Finally, we'll soon know whether the Legislature's approval of a project that has lost favor with voters will spell doom for Brown's sales and income tax measure, as a recent Field Poll indicated it could.

If taxes lose narrowly, the Capitol's bullet train celebration will morph into an spasm of political fingerpointing.

THE SACRAMENTO BEE

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