From today’s Wall Street Journal Political Diary E-mail…
California’s Railroad Job
by Allysia Finley
Republicans once speculated that California Rep. Jim Costa traded his ObamaCare vote—he was one of the last Blue Dog holdouts—for increased federal water allocations to his Central Valley district, which spans from Fresno to Bakersfield. But he may have driven a much harder bargain, which will end up costing state taxpayers billions.
California’s state legislature on Friday green-lighted funding for its $68 billion (or more) bullet train, which in 30 years may connect San Francisco and Anaheim. Since the state has only enough cash in hand to build about 100 miles of track, the train will more likely dead end in Bakersfield, about 130 miles south of Fresno, where the first segment is supposed to begin. Coincidence?
Two weeks before the 2010 midterm elections, the White House announced that it would award California $700 million in high-speed rail funds (in addition to the $2.6 billion of stimulus money Congress had already authorized) on the condition that all $3.3 billion be spent in the Central Valley, which was suffering from high unemployment. Mr. Costa rode the subsidy train to re-election.
Now fast forward two years. Public opinion has turned decisively against the train thanks to several reports by the state’s legislative analysts and others that question the viability of the project. Even some Democratic legislators have gotten cold-feet.
Several polls show that if the train were put up for a referendum, voters by a two-to-one margin would pull the plug. And according to a new Field poll, the train could significantly dampen public support for Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s millionaire’s tax ballot initiative—enough to kill it.
Enough Democratic state senators from the Bay Area and Los Angles region had reported “concerns” about the authority’s business plan to put the brakes on the train. Their “concerns,” however, mainly stemmed from the fact that their districts weren’t getting a slice of the pie. So Mr. Brown tacked on $2 billion of funding for regional rail projects, including $700 million to bail out, er, modernize Silicon Valley’s insolvent Caltrain.
Voila, dozens of prominent Bay Area businesses threw their support behind the train (though none were willing to invest their own money). On Friday the state senate gave the bullet train the right-of-way by authorizing the issuance of state bonds. Four Democrats broke ranks. All faced difficult election challenges this November, including Santa Monica’s Fran Pavley, who authored California’s cap-and-trade law.
A torrent of lawsuits from farmers and cities in the Central Valley could delay construction for several years, which would give the public more time to mobilize and mount a referendum. But in any case, the Bay Area and Los Angeles will likely get their pound of taxpayer flesh, which helps explain why Nancy Pelosi had been lobbying hard for the train over the past several weeks.
Perhaps the only silver lining is that all of the unsavory horse-trading may drive voters to reject Mr. Brown’s tax hike this November, if only as a way to vent their anger.