George F. Will: Obsession with expensive rail is not what California needs

Published: Thursday, Aug. 9 2012 6:33 a.m. MDT

Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, left, talks with Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, as the Senate debated a bill to authorize about $4.5 billion in funding for a high-speed rail system, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, July 6, 2012. The bill, which would allow the state to begin selling $2.6 billion in voter -approved bonds, was approved by a 21-16 vote and now goes to Gov. Jerry Brown who has supports the measure. Lowenthal and Simitian were two of three Democrats in the Senate to oppose the bill.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Rich Pedroncelli, ASSOCIATED PRESS

PALO ALTO, Calif. State Sen. Joe Simitians district office near Stanfords campus is nestled among shops sporting excruciatingly cute names (A Street Bike Named Desire, Moms the Word maternity wear) intended to make the progressive gentry comfortable with upscale consumption by presenting it as whimsical. This community surely has its share of advanced thinkers who believe trains are wonderful because they are not cars (rampant individualism; people going wherever and whenever they want, unsupervised).

Nevertheless, Simitian was one of just four Democratic state senators who recently voted in vain to derail plans that eventually may involve spending more than $100 billion on a 500-mile bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Simitian makes the obligatory genuflection: He favors high-speed rail done right. But having passed sixth grade arithmetic, he has doubts. At one point, an estimate of 44 million riders a year subsequently revised downward, substantially assumed gasoline costing $40 a gallon.

Democracy, said H.L. Mencken, is the theory that people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard. In 2008, Californians passed an initiative authorizing $9.95 billion in bonds to build what they were told would be a $33 billion high-speed rail system. California, constantly lurching from one budget crisis to a worse one, could not nearly afford even that, and soon the price was re-estimated at around $100 billion. Not to worry, said Gov. Jerry Brown, the real price will be only $68.5 billion. Why? Partly because it will be less than bullet-like, not requiring extra expensive roadbed.

Note Browns hilarious .5. Such is his precision, in May his projection of a $15.7 billion state budget deficit was 70 percent higher than his January estimate.

Eager to hook states on higher spending, especially for high-speed rail, the Obama administration wants California to quickly spend $3.3 billion of federal funding (much of it borrowed from China, one source of Barack Obamas train envy). Simitian says the $3.3 billion is about 5 percent of the cost if the project stays on budget. If. The $3.3 billion and $2.7 billion of state money would finance 130 miles of track in the Central Valley a train from, and to, nowhere.

Simitian notes that the 130 miles would not be high-speed rail and would not be electrified, and that there are no commitments for more federal funds, or for any dedicated funding source, or for private funding. And the 2008 ballot measure that launched this folly forbids tax money for operating subsidies.

Californias voters evidently understand that Washingtons $3.3 billion is spending for the purpose of committing Sacramento to much greater spending: Polls show that 59 percent would now reject the project they authorized. But Democrats will not allow reconsideration. They like direct democracy but love spending.

Wisconsins Republican Gov. Scott Walker rejected $810 million in federal money for a 78-mile high-speed rail project paralleling Interstate 94 between Milwaukee and Madison. Ohios Republican Gov. John Kasich rejected $400 million for a high-speed (well, about automobile speed) train paralleling Interstate 71 between Cleveland and Cincinnati. Floridas Republican Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion for 90 miles of high-speed rail paralleling Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando. In faith-based transportation policy, rail worshipers believe people will park their cars in Tampa and then rent cars in Orlando.

Browns reverence for his rail bauble is fanaticism. Or perhaps filial piety: His father, governor from 1959 to 1967, built much of the freeway and water infrastructure for postwar California. When the son was first elected governor 38 years ago, he seemed exotic; now he embodies progressivisms banality. Then he wanted a California space program; now he is fixated on railroads, a 19th-century technology. His prescription for Californias ailments is higher taxes and expensive trains. Fortunately, the latter obsession may stymie the former.

Come November, Californians will vote on Browns recipe for reviving this slow-growth, high-tax state: Raise income taxes temporarily on the rich, and on everybody with a temporary sales tax increase. But with public services being slashed some communities have lopped a week off the school year, with other contractions perhaps still to come voters may reject more revenues for Sacramento while it is showering many scores of billions on trains.

The 21st century may end before Browns sort-of-high-speed rail service begins. Coagulated California is so clotted with environmental regulations and lawyers that turning a spade of earth Spare that endangered toad! invites decades of litigation. Regarding high-speed rail, this is the good news.

George Wills email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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