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High-speed rail is a bad idea when cities are failing

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Posted: Saturday, July 21, 2012 12:00 am

In the 1930s, San Bernardino was a prime winter vacation destination for Hollywood movie stars seeking to get away from what they considered to be chilly Los Angeles weather. Just as winter ended, two major league baseball franchises, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Browns, held their spring training camps in Berdo, as its many admirers lovingly called the Inland Empire city.

Everything was great — palm trees, pools, sun, golf, baseball and maybe an occasional glimpse of Bob Hope.

Those days are long gone. Earlier this month San Bernardino became the second-largest U.S. city to file for protection under the U.S. Bankruptcy code, Chapter 9. Stockton, San Bernardino’s neighbor to the north, and Mammoth Lakes, a tiny resort town, filed earlier in July.

In 2008, Vallejo started the bankruptcy trend, although “trend” is the wrong word. All four cities were driven deeply into debt by the housing collapse and rising public employee salary and benefits commitments.

The three recent filings have triggered speculation that this is merely the iceberg’s tip, and that more major California cities may soon take the same route. Joe Nation, a Stanford University economist, thinks that bankruptcy may be “inevitable” for many municipalities unless they can win major concessions from public employees on salaries and pensions.

Given that California, with its $16.7 billion deficit, can barely keep its head above water, and given further that its cities are cutting day-to-day services in an all-out effort to stave off San Bernardino’s fate, the hour is long past for Sacramento to show leadership and behave in a financially prudent manner.

Instead, last week Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill authorizing California to sell $2.6 billion in construction bonds for the initial 130-mile Central Valley bullet train segment. Brown’s signature allows the state to access $3.2 billion in federal funds for the project.

The latest of various cost estimates is $69 billion, a sum that, assuming the bullet train ever gets finished, will probably be half the actual amount. Already, $69 million is 51 percent higher than the 2008 $45 billion calculation but less than a truer, earlier projection of $98 billion that was slashed after public outrage.

The rail is mind-bogglingly absurd. Despite a $55 billion shortfall, construction will begin later this year near Merced with 300 miles of track to be laid from there, over 10 years, to the northern outskirts of Los Angeles. A decade (3,650 days) to lay 300 miles averages 500 feet a day. A northern link connecting to San Francisco wouldn’t be finished until 2028. For comparison sake, in 1931 New York’s 102-story Empire State Building was finished within 13 months.

According to recent polling, 59 percent of Californians said they’d oppose the bullet train and, if given another chance to vote for it, would halt public borrowing. Nearly 70 percent said that if the train ever runs, they’d “never or hardly ever” use it.

California’s failure can be measured by methods other than charting its cities’ bankruptcies. Forbes Magazine noted that since 1990, California’s government jobs in have increased increased 20 percent from roughly 2 million to nearly 2.4 million today. Over the same period, manufacturing jobs have declined from roughly 1.9 million to just 1.2 million, a 37 percent decline. From 1990 to 2012 the ratio of government employees to factory employees in California has doubled from 1:1 to 2:1.

The only thing that surprises me about California is that voters haven’t made an effort to recall Governor Brown as was successfully done in 2003 to Gray Davis. Maybe everyone who hasn’t moved out of California has grown accustomed to being steamrolled by Sacramento.

Joe Guzzardi, a California native, is one of thousands who reluctantly left his home state. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pa. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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