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Joe Guzzardi High-speed rail plan is a risk California can’t afford

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Joe Guzzardi

Posted: Saturday, April 7, 2012 12:00 am

The chaos engulfing California's proposed bullet train may have reached an intensity that will doom the project before it starts.

In yet another revision of cost estimates and planning, the California High-Speed Rail Authority this week announced a cost reduction from $98 to $68 billion that would be achieved by connecting the train's route to existing lines on the outskirts of Los Angeles and the Bay Area. The first segment would be expanded to 300 miles, connecting Merced in the San Joaquin Valley to the San Fernando Valley within 10 years. The original 2008 plan included a 130-mile portion from Madera to Bakersfield with a total cost calculated at $33 billion.

The widely fluctuating cost estimates, in $30 billion multiples, alarm some legislators who are already nervous about the project's magnitude. Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to ask the Legislature to appropriate funding before the June 15 budget deadline.

Californians, who are doubtful about the rail's feasibility and who would have to absorb the fiscal brunt of failure, view Gov. Brown's last minute cost reductions skeptically. Critics are working hard to force a new vote on the train, which polls indicate would be handily defeated.

One reason that voters have so little confidence is that rail advocates would have to pull off a masterpiece of intricate planning to make the bullet train successful. There's a big difference between the drawing board and reality. In theory, job growth and other economic benefits logically follow an integrated transportation system. But success would require a well-designed combination of station location, links to other transportation systems and supportive land-use and zoning policies to make rail stations a catalyst for economic stimulus.

The High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group has called the train "an immense financial risk" and refused to recommend that the state legislature sell the initial $2.7 billion in bonds. If construction doesn't start by Sept. 30, California will lose $3.3 billion in federal funding.

Even with the lower cost estimate, the total funding remains a wild card. California voters approved a $9.95 billion bond for the proposed system when they passed Proposition 1A in 2008.

Where will the balance come from? The current plan is contingent on receiving billions more from a doubtful Congress, fees from an untested cap-and-trade system that is central to California's effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and unnamed private investors supposedly eager to jump aboard and risk their own money once construction begins.

California's distressed state budget will have to allot more than $700 million each year to repay billions of dollars that officials plan to borrow to build the first phase of the proposed bullet train, according to the non-partisan California State Legislative Analyst's office.

The repayment projection includes principal and interest on the already approved $9.95 billion. Because of higher borrowing rates, the interest total is higher than earlier and doesn't include millions already being paid annually on $500 million in debt incurred during the initial planning process.

Whatever the final cost will be, the rail is the largest capitol project in California's history. California is flat broke and suffers from chronic deficits, looming tax increases and relentless social services cuts and is in no position to roll the dice on the bullet train. The rail would also have devastating, irreversible effects on the state's environment, encourage further unsustainable population growth and have no guarantee of ridership.

The decentralized cities located throughout California's car-addicted society makes the bullet train a high risk gamble the state can't afford to take.

Joe Guzzardi is a Los Angeles native who retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. Send him mail at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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