Back in 2008 (when Proposition 1A was passed under the biased ballot title "Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century"), the "ask" of California voters was to approve a $9.95 billion dollar general bond obligation that would theoretically fund a high-speed rail system (200+ MPH) connecting Sacramento/ San Joaquin Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Southern California. Travel between LA and San Francisco would only take 2 ½ hours and cost about $50 per ticket. The estimated total cost of the project was $45 billion with the remainder of the funding coming from federal, private, local, and other state sources. No tax increase needed and an estimated 70 million automobile passenger trips would be eliminated from our highways. Sounded too good to be true and opponents warned voters that it was.
Fast-forward five years. Cost estimates soared to triple the advertised amount and the "high speed" element of this train was eliminated when the scope of the project was revised. This new regular train is still massively more expensive than first advertised with revised budget estimates ranging between $68 and $98 billion. No one from the private sector has shown an interest in investing which suggests that the funding model initially proposed is fundamentally flawed.
For what ever reason(s), support for the bullet train has turned. While Proposition 1A passed with 52.5% of the vote back in 2008, a statewide USC Dornsife/L.A. Times poll conducted in September of this year shows that 52% of California voters now oppose it (43% say it should go forward). The same L.A. Times poll shows that "70% of respondents want the project to be placed back on the ballot up from the 55% measured in last year's USC Dornsife/L.A. Times poll." (Vartabedian, Ralph. "52% want bullet train stopped, poll finds." Los Angeles Times. 28 Sept. 2013: Online Edition. 16 Dec. 2013.)
Undeterred, the California High Speed Rail Authority and our state government plan to move forward with this project laying tracks between Merced and the San Fernando Valley at a cost to Californians of $31 billion despite the fact only $6 billion of funding is available. They have a "field of dreams" philosophy; if they build it, investors will come. What could possibly go wrong with that?
Earlier this month, California court rulings have refused to issue $9 billion dollars in bond funds needed for the project to begin. The court is requiring the California High Speed Rail Authority to rethink, rewrite and resubmit its funding plan. (The judge did not choose to stop the project altogether.) The Congressional chair of the House rail subcommittee and the chair of the House appropriations panel for transportation have expressed legal concern over the tapping of federal funds and have asked the Governmental Accountability Office to investigate in the aftermath of those recent California court decisions.
Thank goodness we have a judicial system in place and doing what the state legislature and our Governor ought to do: To ensure that the implementation of Proposition 1A lives up to what was promised to voters and failing that, to stop it. The regular train project we are talking about today doesn't remotely resemble the high speed rail project that was promised to voters five years ago. What Governor Brown and the folks in Sacramento should do - if they respected the voters - is what 70% of those surveyed in the L.A. Times poll want: bring it back to the people by putting it back on the ballot.
As we head into a new year, ballot propositions and initiatives are shaping up for the California 2014 ballot. Governor Brown and our state legislature will be looking for our support on several of those. No matter what happens with the Greek Hydra that is the current regular train project, we've learned something. It is OK with our state government that voters can be promised one set of facts as bait, but a completely different reality can emerge and our state leaders will fight tooth and nail to protect the switch. Cast your vote accordingly.