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New York Post

 

California's Crazy Train

July 11, 2012

By Ben Boychuk

PRINTER FRIENDLY

On the fast track for fiscal ruin

California is broke and broken. Its freeways and roads are crumbling. Many cities — like Stockton, which declared bankruptcy two weeks ago — are straining under hundreds of millions in bond debt and unfunded pensions for retired public workers.

In the face of a slow-motion fiscal train wreck, why would state lawmakers commit to spending $5.8 billion in state and federal funds on the first phase of a high-speed rail line that practically nobody wants in part of the state where practically nobody lives?

The state Senate on Friday narrowly approved legislation to start work on a 130-mile stretch of rail between Madera and Bakersfield, where a tiny fraction of Californians live and work — mostly on farms.

OK, a few folks want the Golden State’s high-speed train to nowhere: Urban planners, public-employee unions, the beleaguered construction industry and sundry green utopians with a hopeless case of China envy love the concept.

And Gov. Jerry Brown is a big fan, stubbornly standing by the plan even as he cut spending on welfare, education, parks and prisons.

Yet the best explanation may be the Obama administration’s desperation for a win. The US Department of Transportation thrust $3.5 billion in stimulus money into the state’s grubby hands (billions that Florida and Ohio wisely turned down) and said "build it."

But the feds then told California to break ground on the project this year — or lose the cash.

Never mind that Golden State taxpayers can’t afford the longterm costs of running a high-speed-rail system, or that voters have soured on the project.

Yes, Californians in 2008 approved $9.95 billion in bonds to finance what was sold as a $40 billion train from Anaheim (home of Disneyland) to San Francisco (a different kind of Fantasyland), with trips starting in 2020.

But the state’s proposal turned out to be mostly fantasy, too. Almost every estimate — cost, ridership, speed, construction time — turned out to be wildly off, incomplete or too incredible to be believed.

How incredible? At one point, state officials giddily promised 117 million people a year would ride the bullet train from LA to Frisco. Sorry: In a good year, just 30 million people ride Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the nation’s busiest rail line.

California officials eventually revised their estimates to 44 million passengers, still half again what Amtrak carries in 46 states. And still ignoring the fact that Californians are (famously) wed to their cars.

The cost has been controversial from the start. The $40 billion price tag in 2008 quickly ballooned to $80 billion, then $98 billion, and eventually $120 billion. A revised "business plan" released this year supposedly brought the price down to $68 billion, with the first trains expected to leave the station in 2035. It’s a ripoff, no matter what the cost.

A few weeks ago, Brown signed a $92 billion budget deal to close a $16 billion deficit. But for the budget to "balance," voters must approve a massive $8.5 billion tax hike in November. Without that cash, Brown says he’ll need to cut $6 billion from public education.

But by approving this $5.8 billion downpayment on a boondoggle that’s on track to top a hundred billion, Brown and his fellow Democrats in Sacramento have given away the game, and imperiled their hopes for higher taxes.

A Field Poll released two days before the state Senate’s vote found that one in three likely voters — including one in five who support Brown’s tax scheme — said they’d probably vote against higher taxes if lawmakers funded the bullet train.

Well, the people’s representatives made their decision. Now the people have a chance to respond in kind in November — and slam the brakes on this fiscal crazy train.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/california_crazy_train_sHX7C5LAvscjwAcUGCGnRP

 

 
 
 

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