Opinion Columns & Blogs

Another View: Court rulings create insurmountable barrier to high-speed rail project

The Sacramento Bee editorial board’s contention that the court rulings on California’s high-speed rail project don’t effectively kill it (“Rail ruling is a setback, but it’s not a golden spike,” Nov. 27) reminds me of the scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” where the knight who has just had all four of his limbs severed says, “Just a flesh wound.”

The truth is that these two decisions, if upheld on appeal, create an insurmountable barrier that the High-Speed Rail Authority simply cannot overcome.

Five years ago voters were asked to approve a supposedly “shovel-ready” high-speed rail system carrying 220-mph electric trains on dedicated track that would travel several times a day to all of California’s major population centers. As an example of the projected travel times and ticket fares, voters were told they could go from San Francisco to Los Angeles in under 2 1/2 hours for about $50 per person. The system was going to cost $43 billion to build, half of which would come from federal and private matching funds. And the most important promise was that the system would be self-funding once operational, requiring no new taxes or government subsidies. Based on these promises, voters approved Proposition 1A in November 2008.

The project now bears no relationship to what was sold to voters. The cost of construction has more than tripled. The federal government has pledged no more than $3.5 billion in matching funds, and private investors are nowhere to be found. The revised business plan has scrapped the idea of 220-mph trains operating on its own track, in favor of slower trains partly sharing existing track with standard passenger and freight trains. Ridership projections have been greatly reduced, resulting in less fare-box revenue. Current estimates are that California’s taxpayers would have to provide $200 million to $400 million a year to keep the trains running.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael P. Kenny found there was no evidence whatsoever that the state had or could secure the funding needed to complete even an initial segment of track; there was only fanciful speculation. In a separate ruling he found that the state’s current funding plan did not conform to the requirements of Proposition 1A and he ordered the state to draft a new plan that does conform. Among the requirements placed in statute by Proposition 1A is the requirement that the system be self-funding, needing no new taxes or government subsidies.

Without subsidies, this train will never leave the station.