Hearings on Calif. high-speed rail plan superficial
By Dan Walters
Budget subcommittees in both legislative houses conducted hearings this week on whether to appropriate money for California Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to link the northern and southern halves of the state with a high-speed bullet train.
The Assembly's hearing was, charitably, superficial.
This is the largest state public works project in U.S. history, one that would cost tens of billions of dollars and divert money from a deficit-ridden state budget. Independent reviewers, including the Legislature's own budget analyst, have expressed serious doubts as to its financial viability.
The Assembly subcommittee's members, however, treated it just like another routine budget request. Several were downright gushy over the bullet train, unwilling to delve into the very serious questions about its efficacy.
Don't confuse us with the facts, they implied, because we've already made up our minds and are ready to rubber-stamp the request under direction from the Assembly's Democratic leadership.
A few hours later, the Senate budget subcommittee chaired by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, took up the same request. The contrast was stark.
"Our job is oversight, not cheerleading," Simitian declared. And he meant it.
Simitian and Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, grilled officials of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, particularly Chairman Dan Richard, about the project's finances, especially the federal government's insistence that construction begin in the San Joaquin Valley and the lack of firm funding for any expansion beyond that initial segment.
The authority's latest plan assumes that the federal government will put up nearly two-thirds of the cost of building the system from San Francisco to Los Angeles. But there's no guarantee, or even any reasonable assumption, that the feds will put up the money.
Brown and Richard have dangled the notion of using proceeds of "cap-and-trade" fees being levied to curb greenhouse gases as another source of bullet train money, but the Legislative Analyst's Office, among others, doubts the legality of that use.
The exchanges between Simitian and Richard, while cordial, were very pointed as Richard tried to avoid being pinned down on the financial picture - for good reason. The implication is that once begun, the state will be morally committed to completion, regardless of cost.
Simitian and Lowenthal, both of whom are seeking new offices outside the Legislature this year, are being hammered by bullet train proponents, including construction unions that want the jobs the project would bring.
So far, however, they are showing unusual courage, even bucking their own Democratic leaders, by insisting that the project have a secure financial footing before they make what could be an irrevocable commitment.
Dan Walters is an editorial writer for Sacramento Bee.