Opinion

Dan Walters: Bullet train faces withering series of hurdles

dwalters@sacbee.comApril 6, 2014 

The California High-Speed Rail Authority plans to begin construction this year on a bullet train system that is supposed to eventually stretch 500 miles from Sacramento to San Diego.

It will be, at most, a modest beginning. The agency only has enough money – maybe – for 130 miles of non-electrified track from Madera to somewhere north of Bakersfield, dubbed “the train to nowhere” by critics.

Even if that stretch is built, laying track farther south depends on overcoming a withering array of financial, legal and political hurdles within the state and the overt hostility of a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

The next few months will be critical, as multiple lawsuits challenging the project’s fidelity to a 2008 voter-approved bond issue are resolved, and as the Legislature ponders Gov. Jerry Brown’s desperation-tinged proposal to use the state’s new “cap-and-trade” fees on carbon emissions.

Brown wants a $250 million injection of fee money in a few months, apparently so he can meet the looming matching mandate of a $3.5 billion federal grant. Borrowing more state bond money has been blocked by a judge’s finding – now under appeal – that the project doesn’t meet bond act requirements.

So far, the feds are allowing the state to front-load use of grant funds despite the lack of matching money and a 2011 declaration by the U.S. Department of Transportation that front-loading “is not feasible.”

Brown also wants the bullet train to receive a third of future cap-and-trade funds, but no one knows how much will be forthcoming, or even if the fees will survive two lawsuits by business interests saying they are illegal taxes.

Moreover, there’s doubt, expressed by the Legislature’s budget analyst and others, that the fees can be legally spent on the bullet train since they are supposed to be used to reduce carbon emissions by 2020.

Nor is there certain legislative support for spending carbon fee money.

Environmental groups and Democratic legislative allies are openly leery, preferring other uses and fearing the bullet train could, if other funds are lacking, soak up all the fees.

Finally, even with fees, there’s not enough money to build the $31 billion, 300-mile “initial operating segment” from Madera to the San Fernando Valley for which, the bond law says, complete financing must be shown. That may be the pithiest issue in the legal challenges.

Counting all the bond money, all of the federal grant and all the carbon fees Brown seeks would still leave about a $15 billion gap for which CHSRA officials now have only fingers-crossed wishes.

Closing the gap, if it can be closed, is not only a legal requirement but, as the Legislature’s budget analyst says, common sense. Should work even begin on a grandiose project that has lost public favor and may never be finished?

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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