No Silver Bullet for Bullet Train Funding
Yesterday leaders from the California High Speed Rail Authority spoke to the State Senate about the project’s progress. Some of the things we learned:
Lawmakers also heard from state Auditor Elaine Howle, who last year criticized the authority’s processes for monitoring the performance and accountability of its contractors as lacking oversight and said the agency’s contractors and subcontractors “outnumber its employees by about 25 to one.”
Howle told the joint hearing of the Senate Transportation and Housing and the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review committees that the rail authority has fully implemented 17 of its 23 recommendations and made progress on the others. That includes hiring senior-level staff and strengthening its policies and procedures.
That’s great news, if entirely unsurprising. The Authority was always going to implement those recommendations, and those who tried to use the Auditor’s report to attack the project are now proved wrong. The Authority has always been a very responsive organization and has only become more responsive over the last year or so.
Dan Richard also discussed funding:
That approval also allowed the state to tap $3.2 billion from the federal government, but it’s still not known where the rest of the money will come from. The state’s business plan calls for some backing from private investors and for a private operator to run the system without a state subsidy.
High-speed rail board Chairman Dan Richard said he still doesn’t know the answer, but officials believe the financing will come from a variety of sources. He said he remains confident that private investors will step up to service and operate the trains, sell tickets and perform other functions once the initial segment is built.
“At this point we don’t have answers for you, but we do have a mindset,” he said. “It’ll be a series of 10 percent solutions; it won’t be a silver bullet.”
That makes sense, especially given the ongoing crisis of basic governance in Congress, where core government services will start getting cut and workers will be furloughed thanks to the “sequester” cuts later this week. Congress is a dysfunctional institution that is threatening almost every service the state of California delivers, well beyond high speed rail.
Unfortunately, for some State Senators, California’s future is something to be feared rather than embraced:
“I’m still looking for Plan B,” [Mark] DeSaulnier said.
He and other senators also questioned whether the state could build the bullet train without neglecting other, badly needed transportation work, such as highway reconstruction.
This isn’t an either/or situation. Highway reconstruction and passenger rail are both important, with the latter being the higher priority anyway given global warming. Roads need to be rebuilt, but that will require a new transportation funding solution. A new transportation funding model could address both basic maintenance and transit expansion, from local buses to high speed trains. There’s no need for a false choice here, and State Senators ought to be helping find solutions rather than picking holes in one of the few solutions we do have.