High-Speed Rail is not the Golden Spike

PERSPECTIVE-At last week’s board meeting of the Neighborhood Council Valley Village (held January 22nd), I attended as a stakeholder for the first time in ten years. I retired as a board member effective at the end of December. 

It was refreshing – no treasurer’s report to present, no procedural issues to cloud my thoughts.

I could focus on the questions I would ask. All it took was filling out a speaker card. 

A representative of Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian was present. I took the opportunity to ask him a question concerning what the assemblyman’s position was on the California bullet train. 

The reply was as straightforward as one could expect from an elected official’s staff member: according to the representative, Mr. Nazarian believes that local transportation must take precedent over the bullet train. He recognizes there are other priorities which require significant funding. 

A very practical point of view from my way of thinking. 

While this is not even close to an outright condemnation of the controversial $64 billion project, it is at least a statement of concern. 

It is also an indication of how support for the bullet train is anything but assured in the legislature – freshmen Assembly Members normally do not take positions contrary to those of their party leaders. 

Governor Brown does not appear to be the least bit phased by the pushback he is receiving, however modest, from Democrats in Sacramento. He filed a petition last Friday with the State Supreme Court to overturn the lower-court rulings that have blocked the sale of $8.6 billion in bonds. The proceeds would only cover a portion of the project’s first leg.  

He even requested an expedited review. 

There is no way to predict how the State Supreme Court will rule, but Brown’s request essentially is asking the justices to ignore the stipulations governing the bond sale. 

If the court supports the governor, the battle will continue on other fronts. A ballot measure to repeal the High Speed Rail Act is in its nascent state.  The U.S Congress might hold off on providing the federal share of funding for the project. Of course, other legal challenges may emerge as well. 

As part of his budget proposal, Brown is requesting that the state loan $29 million to the project to keep it alive while the controversy and legal battles are played out. More money flushed down the toilet – as if our sewer treatment facilities don’t have enough to deal with. 

The problem in California, as in many government units, is the one-off approach to dealing with long-term capital investment. There is no comprehensive strategy, no prioritization. To the extent there is any forethought, what gets advanced is determined by ego and political interests. 

The High-Speed rail project is a perfect example – maybe we should call it half-speed rail since the trains will not be able to run close to the pace required to make the trip to/from LA and SF in under three hours. 

Governor Brown’s ill-advised commitment to this money-sucking scheme is probably driven by ego and commitment to a narrow range of interests who will benefit from the construction phase. 

From a practical standpoint, the reduction of traffic congestion and its impact on the environment would be far better served by investing in regional rail or road engineering improvements. Taking cars off the freeways serving the LA metro area trumps getting them off the 5 or 99 in the San Joaquin Valley. 

The average person is more concerned about the length of the trip through the Sepulveda Pass or other clogged arteries than the time it takes to get to San Francisco. It would not matter if the bullet train traveled at Warp 3, the need to travel to/from San Francisco is infrequent compared to daily commuting. 

What about water resources? 

Vast sums must be invested to capture runoff, allow use of grey water and clean aquifers. 

Ask yourself these two questions: 

  • How long can you ago without riding a bullet train?
  • How long can you go without showering?

OK, I am being facetious with that comparison, but the point is that water management is infinitely more critical to life here than the high-speed train. The debt associated with addressing water and regional transportation needs alone could be a crushing load for taxpayers to bear. Why layer another $64 billion – and quite possibly more – for the bullet train? 

If I was facetious in my comparison, then Governor Brown redefined the meaning of the term to an extreme. 

Old Jerry equated the importance of the high-speed rail project to the construction of the intercontinental railroad in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. He may have been around back then for all we know. 

This is an absurd apples and oranges analogy. Probably more like fruits and nuts, with the governor as part of the latter category. 

The transcontinental railroad facilitated commerce. Prior to its existence, the only practical way to ship goods from coast to coast was by sea through Cape Horn, a journey that took months and was subject to rough seas. 

Within ten years after the golden spike was driven into the last tie in 1869, $50 million of goods were shipped from California to and from the east. That’s $50 million in 1879 dollars. Trade grew exponentially afterwards. 

The bullet train is designed to move passengers, a very small segment of the transit market at that. It will add little or nothing to commerce. If anything, there will be a high cost versus the limited social or environmental value. 

There are state elections coming up in June. The candidates for the Assembly and State Senate owe us an explanation of where they stand on high-speed rail. 

As the candidates make the rounds at forums, neighborhood council meetings or any other gathering, ask them. The media also needs to get answers.


(Paul Hatfield is a CPA and former NC Valley Village board member and treasurer .  He blogs at Village to Village and contributes to CityWatch. He can be reached at: phinnoho@aol.com) –cw







Vol 12 Issue 8

Pub: Jan 28, 2014