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Joe Guzzardi: Judge sends high-speed rail plan off the tracks

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Posted: Saturday, January 4, 2014 12:00 am

Environmentalists and budget critics of California’s proposed bullet train may be breathing a sigh of relief.

Throughout its brief but tumultuous history, the bullet train has suffered a series of setbacks. Until now, none of them have been fatal.

But last month Sacramento Supreme Court Judge Michael Kenny ruled that the High-Speed Rail Authority could not use $8.6 billion in voter approved bonds. Proposition 1A, passed in 2008, required the rail authority to specify the funding sources for the line’s first operable segment and to have all the necessary environmental clearances in place. Kenny ruled that the agency did not comply with either mandate when it approved the start of construction from Madera to Fresno, about 30 miles.

In a separate lawsuit filed by San Joaquin Valley residents, Kenny also ordered the rail authority to rewrite its $68 billion business plan before undertaking future construction because the state identified only funding sources that are “merely theoretically possible.” Although the rail authority promises it will issue bonds, the judge wants to know who will buy them. What were once considered potential buyers are no long realistic candidates — the federal government is in strict sequester mode, California has no readily available excess cash and private investors show little, if any, interest.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Michael Brady, provided additional comfort to Californians who think the rail is expensive, frivolous and would rarely be used. Brady wondered how long it would take to complete 300 miles of environmental clearances when it took five years to finish 28 miles. The answer: 50 years.

Another formidable hurdle would have to be overcome. Rail agency spokesmen say they have identified 401 separate parcels of prime acreage needed to complete the first leg, but are only in active negotiations with a handful of owners to acquire them. State officials anticipate asking for the power of eminent domain to acquire at least three of the parcels in early 2014.

Advocates have downplayed the bonds’ significant cost factor. The non-partisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office projected an interest rate at 5 percent with a repayment period of 30 years. Using those estimates, the California General Fund’s cost would be approximately $19.4 billion to pay off principal ($9.95 billion) and interest ($9.5 billion) or about $647 million annually. Those calculations, however, don’t include operating costs and maintenance, which the LAO projects at $1 billion per year and may be only partially offset by passenger revenue.

Despite Gov. Jerry Brown’s repeated assurances, Californians remain skeptical about the rail’s feasibility and concerned about the fiscal brunt of failure. 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 effective.

There’s a big difference between the drawing board and reality. Theoretically, 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 bullet train is the largest capital project in California’s history. If ever completed, the rail would have devastating, irreversible effects on the state’s environment, encourage further unsustainable population growth and, despite its huge cost, have no guarantee of ridership.

Luckily for Californians, it appears permanently derailed.

Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008 and lives in Pittsburgh. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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