Soapbox

Let voters shift high-speed rail money to schools

Gov. Jerry Brown speaks to the crowd during the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s groundbreaking ceremony in January in Fresno. An Assembly member wants to redirect high-speed rail bond money to school construction.
Gov. Jerry Brown speaks to the crowd during the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s groundbreaking ceremony in January in Fresno. An Assembly member wants to redirect high-speed rail bond money to school construction. The Associated Press

Buyer’s remorse is bad enough after selecting the wrong car, but it’s even worse when it comes to the largest public works project in U.S. history – the $68 billion high-speed rail project.

In 2008, voters narrowly approved Proposition 1A providing $8 billion in general obligation bonds as a down payment for a high-speed rail system and $950 million for other related rail purposes. However, after a lack of federal and private funding, court challenges and system design changes, polls show that voters, given another chance, would say “no.”

On Monday, the Assembly Transportation Committee can take the first step in derailing the bullet train by passing Assembly Bill 6. It would give voters the chance in November 2016 to cancel high-speed rail and redirect the $8 billion to build schools and college facilities.

The promises in Proposition 1A were quite clear: the project would cost $33 billion; funding would be evenly divided among state, federal and private; the train would travel at 200 mph; and fares would be about $50 a person.

The realities of 2015 are quite different. Costs are projected at $68 billion to $80 billion – and only for the phase one route from San Francisco to Los Angeles, not the additional line linking Sacramento. Who knows what the final cost will be.

The Obama administration earmarked an initial $3.5 billion, but with the GOP in control of Congress, more federal money isn’t on the way. As for private sources, all we hear are chirps.

Instead of an electrified bullet train with a 2-hour, 40-minute nonstop travel time from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the current proposal is for a blended system with an estimated travel time of 4 hours or more.

The expected fare has climbed to $81. Independent reviews all have concluded that ridership projections are unreliable and inflated. And the High-Speed Rail Authority is being sued over failing to meet the mandates of Proposition 1A, environmental issues, land acquisition, and the misuse of cap-and-trade funds.

I believe there is a better use of the $8 billion set aside for high-speed rail. California is in dire need of school facility funding. The last statewide school bond was passed in 2006; only $187 million remains and of that, $142 million is earmarked for seismic repair.

According to the Office of Public School Construction, future need for K-12 new construction and modernization is estimated at more than $16 billion. These bond funds not only are critical to schools, they are beneficial to the economy and will generate thousands of construction-related jobs.

According to the state treasurer, 116 school and community college bonds passed in 2012. Voters approved these local bonds expecting a 50 percent match from state funds. AB 6 would bridge that gap.

In 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown said he would not raise taxes without a vote of the people and put Proposition 30 on the ballot.

It’s once again time to place our trust in the people to let them decide if they want to spend their hard-earned tax dollars on high-speed rail. Given the project’s realities and the state’s precarious financial situation, the governor and other high-speed rail supporters should make their case again to California voters.

Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, represents the 38th Assembly District.

  Comments