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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Jerry Brown's white elephant legacy

From the San Jose Mercury News, June 10, 2012, p. A18:
Enough. Stop rail fantasy in its tracks

There is a fine line between visionary and delusional. California's high-speed rail project whizzed across that line long ago and now is chugging toward the monorail station at Fantasyland.

The latest end-run tactic by the train's chief engineer, Gov. Jerry Brown, would have California's Legislature suspend its tough environmental laws so the state could put this pet project on the -- pardon the pun -- fast track.

Never mind that every independent analysis of the project has been highly critical of it.

Never mind that the High-Speed Rail Authority's own peer review group said it was terribly flawed.

Never mind that the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office said even the new, new, new and improved incarnation still is not nearly "strong enough" and relies on "highly speculative" funding sources. For the uninitiated, that is bureaucratese for "not a snowball's chance in hell of finding the money to pay for it."
Nope, none of that matters. Casey Jones is at the controls of his legacy project, so reason and fiscal prudence must sit this one out.

We say all this despite having supported high pseed rail when it was on the ballot in 2008. Rail is important to America's future, and we knew the first steps towards any visionary plan face hurdles and may require leaps of faith.

But back then nobody foresaw the economic plunge that still leaves California mired in budget deficits. We lost faith in the original board and its planning and construction team. Then last year, an updated plan with wildly higher costs for a smaller system sent us leaping to the sidetrack. (Oopsie, did we say $45 billion? We meant $98 billion. No, no, wait, $68 billion. Well, you know, around there somewhere. Did we say San Diego and Sacramento would be included in those numbers? Drat, our bad, they aren't.)

How could anyone believe a word of what comes from the High-Speed Rail Authority? As to Brown's legacy, he still has to get us tax plan approved in the fall. If voters perceived high-speed rail as a waste of money, they will be more dubious of taxes.
From the San Jose Mercury News, June 10, 2012, p. A19:
Brown risks legacy on bullet train
By Daniel Borenstein

As Gov. Jerry Brown barrels ahead with high-speed trains, he could find that his quest for a legacy derails the November tax measure he desperately needs to repair the state budget.

For his entire political career, Brown has lived in the shadows of his visionary father, Pat, the governor from 1959-67 who brought us the State Water Project and the master plan for California higher education.

The younger Brown has always been a big thinker in search of his own legacy. But, after his first gubernatorial tenure, from 1975-83, he was best remembered as Gov. Moonbeam, the ideas guy who could never deliver, and for his appointment of Rose Bird to the state Supreme Court, which backfired when voters recalled the chief justice and two of her Brown-appointed colleagues in 1986.

We were told during the 2010 gubernatorial election that Brown, then 72, had politically and personally matured, that he was more down to earth, that he had learned from his intervening years in local government as mayor of Oakland.

But he undermines the frugality image by continuing to champion a financially indefensible plan to link the major metropolitan areas of the state with high-speed rail. In his search for his own legacy he risks voter support for his tax measure.

Brown should exercise caution. While he strives to be remembered like his late father for the capital projects he leaves behind, defeat of the tax measure could so badly undermine his financial recovery plans and lead to the gutting of the state's public education system that his legacy might instead resemble that of his former chief of staff, Gray Davis.

Whether voters in November see the connection -- and contradiction -- between Brown's demand for more taxes and his reckless exuberance for spending billions on high-speed rail remains to be seen. A recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll of registered voters suggests that's a very real risk.

When voters four years ago authorized issuing up to $9 billion in bonds for high-speed rail, they made it subject to legislative approval. Now, Brown and Democratic leaders in the Legislature are trying to fast-track approval of nearly $3 billion of those bonds to kick-start the project -- even though they have no idea where most of the money for the system will come from.

It's a risky gambit. The governor is seeking legislative approval for high-speed rail bonds roughly four months before voters cast ballots on his tax measure. Does he really want to anger them just when he needs them the most?