Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California bullet-train financing still shaky

On Monday, the Assembly Transportation Committee held what was supposedly an oversight hearing on the state's nascent bullet train project.

It was a joke.

The committee's chairwoman, Long Beach Democrat Bonnie Lowenthal, beamed as the boss of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, Jeff Morales, emitted bland assurances that the project was proceeding smoothly and tossed a couple of softball questions.

But when Fresno Republican Jim Patterson tried to ask some pointed questions about the project, the first phase of which runs through his city, Lowenthal cut him off, saying it was time to "move forward."

Later, when Lowenthal opened the hearing to the public for a very few minutes, a construction industry representative tried to complain that the High-Speed Rail Authority is insisting that potential contractors must sign "project labor agreements" that, in effect, reserve jobs for unionized workers. But she cut him off as well.

On Tuesday, more or less the same cast showed up for a two-committee Senate oversight hearing on the bullet train, and it was a more mature event - in part because the presiding senator, Concord Democrat Mark DeSaulnier, voted against the project last year and remains skeptical about its financial viability - as he should be.

The state has enough money from a bond issue and a federal grant to build a 131-mile starter line in the San Joaquin Valley but statewide completion would need tens of billions of additional dollars from private investors or the federal government.

Morales and Dan Richard, the chairman of the rail authority, didn't have firm answers to DeSaulnier's questions about financing. Richard said it would be "a series of 10 percent solutions" and promised that each segment of the project would have "independent utility" even if a whole system isn't built.

They and Gov. Jerry Brown's transportation agency secretary, Brian Kelly, are gently floating the notion of using the cap and trade greenhouse gas emission fees now being extracted from California businesses to build the bullet train that's supposed to eventually link population centers in both ends of the state.

However, those funds are supposed to be spent on projects that reduce pollution, and the state's own documents say the bullet train would have little net effect on greenhouse gas emissions.

"I'm still looking for Plan B," DeSaulnier said.

He and other senators also questioned whether the state could build the bullet train without neglecting other, badly needed transportation work, such as highway reconstruction.

Ultimately, the Senate hearing was no more definitive about whether the bullet train could - and should - be built than the Assembly event.

But at least the senators staged a real hearing and not a dog-and-pony show.