Friday, August 10, 2012

California: Lurching to a budget crisis

Posted on Wed, Aug. 08, 2012

California’s reckless lunge toward high-speed rail
By George Will
Washington Post Writers Group

...Democracy, said H.L. Mencken, is the theory that people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard. In 2008, Californians passed an initiative authorizing $9.95 billion in bonds to build what they were told would be a $33 billion high-speed rail system. California, constantly lurching from one budget crisis to a worse one, could not nearly afford even that, and soon the price was re-estimated at around $100 billion.

Not to worry, said Gov. Jerry Brown, the real price will be only $68.5 billion. Why? Partly because it will be less than bullet-like, not requiring extra expensive roadbed.

Eager to hook states on higher spending, especially for high-speed rail, the Obama administration wants California to quickly spend $3.3 billion of federal funding, much of it borrowed from China. Simitian says the $3.3 billion is about 5 percent of the cost “if the project stays on budget.” If. The $3.3 billion and $2.7 billion of state money would finance 130 miles of track in the Central Valley — a train from, and to, nowhere.

State Senator Joe Simitian notes that the 130 miles would not be high-speed rail and would not be electrified, and that there are no commitments for more federal funds, or for any dedicated funding source, or for private funding. And the 2008 ballot measure that launched this folly forbids tax money for operating subsidies.

California’s voters evidently understand that Washington’s $3.3 billion is spending for the purpose of committing Sacramento to much greater spending. Polls show that 59 percent would now reject the project they authorized. But Democrats will not allow reconsideration.

Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker rejected $810 million in federal money for a 78-mile high-speed rail project between Milwaukee and Madison. Ohio’s Republican Gov. John Kasich rejected $400 million for a high-speed (well, about automobile speed) train between Cleveland and Cincinnati. Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion for 90 miles of high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando. In faith-based transportation policy, rail worshipers believe people will park their cars in Tampa and then rent cars in Orlando.

Brown’s reverence for his rail bauble is fanaticism. Or perhaps filial piety: His father, governor from 1959 to 1967, built much of the freeway and water infrastructure for postwar California. When the son was first elected governor 38 years ago, he seemed exotic; now he embodies progressivism’s banality. Then he wanted a California space program; now he is fixated on railroads, a 19th-century technology. His prescription for California’s ailments is higher taxes and expensive trains. Fortunately, the latter obsession may stymie the former.

Come November, Californians will vote on Brown’s recipe for reviving this slow-growth, high-tax state: Raise income taxes “temporarily” on the rich, and on everybody with a “temporary” sales tax increase. But with public services being slashed voters may reject more revenues for Sacramento while it is spending billions on trains.

The 21st century may end before Brown’s sort-of-high-speed rail service begins. California is so clotted with environmental regulations and lawyers that turning a spade of earth invites decades of litigation. On high-speed rail, this is the good news.