Steve Wiegand

High-speed rail: Threat or menace?

Published: Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3E
Last Modified: Friday, Apr. 13, 2012 - 10:05 pm

When it comes to politics, we Californians are well-known for being a bit fickle.

When it comes to politics, we Californians are also well-known for electing actors to high offices – George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rin Tin Tin. And also passing a whole bunch of initiatives that we later regret or take decades to figure out or often ignore. But for now, let's just focus on being capricious.

Caprice in politics can be a good thing. As the late Sen. Barry Goldwater might have said if he had lived in California rather than Arizona, "inconsistency in the name of indecisiveness is no vice."

You want examples of how denizens of the Golden State have stoutly refused to tie themselves to political stances, even at the risk of looking erratic and indecisive? OK, how about:

• Gray Davis. We re-elected the guy as governor in November 2002, and then threw him out 336 days later.

• Jerry Brown. In his last year of office as governor in 1982 (the first time around), polls showed 53 percent of Californians thought he didn't work very hard, 57 percent did not approve of his performance and 59 percent thought he lacked leadership skills. In 2010, 54 percent of Californians elected him governor again.

• The high-speed rail project. In November 2008, 52.7 percent of voters approved a $9 billion bond to get the project started. In December, a poll showed that 59 percent want a do-over so they can reject the idea.

Unlike electing and un-electing governors, however, changing our minds on the high-speed rail project can be serious. There are environmental and social ramifications, and those are dwarfed by the financial ones. The project's costs are estimated at from $99 billion to $178 gazillion, depending on whether we opt for the seat warmers and faux leather trim.

So, before we get all carried away, demand that the Legislature derail the whole thing, refuse the $3.3 billion the federal government wants to send us for the first phase of the project and forever forgo the possibility of getting to Hanford faster than we ever dreamed of, let's ask ourselves some questions that may reveal how we really feel about the idea.

1. Your job requires you to go to Buttonwillow from Sacramento. The most efficient way to deal with this requirement is:

a.) Drive the 113 miles to Merced, take the bullet train to Bakersfield, take a cab to a car rental agency, rent a car, and then drive the remaining 27 miles to Buttonwillow

b.) Drive straight to Buttonwillow, a distance of 261.5 miles

c.) Fly to Los Angeles, take the bus to Bakersfield, rent a car and drive to Buttonwillow

d.) Get a new job that does not require you to go to Buttonwillow

2. Which of the following really cool countries does not have a high-speed train system?

a.) Spain

b.) France

c.) Japan

d.) Pluto

3. If a high-speed train leaves Paris and arrives in Marseilles three hours later, and a second high-speed train leaves Tokyo and arrives in Osaka 2 1/2 hours later and a third high-speed train leaves Bakersfield and arrives in Merced one hour later, which would you rather be on?

a.) The first one

b.) The second one

c.) The third one

4. The nonpartisan legislative analyst says the high-speed rail project's financing is uncertain; the nonpartisan state auditor says the project is understaffed; Democrats say it will create countless high-paying jobs; and Republicans say it's a socialist scheme to force us out of our cars. Who's right?

a.) The legislative analyst

b.) The state auditor

c.) The Democrats

d.) The Republicans

e.) All of the above

5. Records show that the California High-Speed Rail Authority hired people who spent nearly $10 million in the past two years on a "community outreach" program designed to get people to like the idea of a high-speed train running up and down the state. This was:

a.) Clearly a good idea

b.) Well-intentioned, but in hindsight could have been better thought out.

c.) Are you &*%^# kidding me?

Answers: (1) d. (2) It's a trick question. Pluto is not a country, it's a planet. No, wait, it's a, well, it's not a country. At least not one with a bullet train. (3) c. You can't afford to fly to Paris or Tokyo, let alone ride on their trains. (4) e. (5) Come on, you can figure this one out without an answer here, right?

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