Walters: Train a $100B boondoggle in Calif.

Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown is shown in this

Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown is shown in this file photo. (Credit: AP)

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It's one thing for politicians, ordinary citizens, lawyers or even media pundits to say that California's bullet train project is fatally flawed and should be scrapped before it becomes a hopeless money pit.

Bullet train zealots dismiss those naysayers as uninformed or biased, and even reject milder criticism from the Legislature's budget analyst.

But when the California High-Speed Rail Authority's own "peer review" committee of transportation experts says the project is half-baked and should be put on hold, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature should pay heed. And that's exactly what happened last week.


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The peer reviewers, headed by former Caltrans director Will Kempton, told the Legislature that while recently revised plans are an improvement, they still don't adequately describe how the north-south system could reasonably be built and operated.

It concluded, "We cannot overemphasize the fact that moving ahead on the HSR project without credible sources of adequate funding, without a definitive business model, without a strategy to maximize the independent utility and value to the state, and without the appropriate management resources, represents an immense financial risk on the part of the State of California." Tom Umberg, a former assemblyman who chairs the authority, denounced the report -- which proves only that members of the agency have lost all sense of objectivity and responsibility.

Specifically, the authority wants the Legislature to appropriate $2.7 billion in state bond bonds to match $3.5 billion in federal funds so that an initial section of the system can be built, roughly between Fresno and Bakersfield.

But as the peer reviewers point out, even if the section could be built for $6.2 billion -- which they say is unproven -- its utility is uncertain and it may be illegal because it's not an electrified railway as the authorizing legislation and ballot measure mandate.

In reaching that conclusion, the peer review panel bolsters contentions of Kings County, which has filed suit to stop the project.

Brown appointed two new members of the authority to overhaul its plans and keep the project alive. The two, Dan Richard and Mike Rossi, did what they could and made some improvements, as the peer review report concedes. But the revised "business plan" is still full of holes.

Supposedly, the state would lose the federal funds if work on the San Joaquin Valley section doesn't begin later this year. However, that allocation is only a tiny droplet in the $100 billion construction estimate.

"This is the time for big ideas," Brown said Thursday, reiterating his support for the bullet train and revealing plans to fold the CHSRA into a new superagency.

But this is looking more and more like a big boondoggle. It's time to pull the plug.

Dan Walters writes for the Sacramento Bee, www.sacbee.com/walters.

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