Should HSR Go Back to the Ballot?
State Senator Andy Vidak, a Republican who just won a special election in the San Joaquin Valley this summer over a Democratic opponent, wants a re-vote on high speed rail, presumably so that voters would do the Tea Party’s bidding and kill it. California Republicans have still not grasped the extent to which the state has turned on them and their regressive values, but Vidak gives it a shot anyway:
As California moves forward with the controversial high-speed rail project in our Central Valley, I’m asking elected officials to give voters another look at the project. It is clearly a different version than what the voters approved in 2008.
Back then, voters approved a project that they were told would cost $35 billion. Those cost estimates have now ballooned to as high as $100 billion — nearly three times the original estimate. And there is no private investment lining up to help cover the ever-increasing costs as we have repeatedly been told.
When voters approved the project five years ago, they were told that the bullet train would make the trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes, reaching sustained speeds of 220 miles per hour. A ticket from Southern California to the Bay Area would cost $50.
Today it is estimated that the trip will take closer to four hours, meaning that the 220 mph promised will never materialize on key areas of the track. The projected cost of the ticket has now doubled to $100.
Vidak is inconsistent here. He cites the $100 billion cost of full HSR from SF to LA, and then cites the slower travel times under the blended plan – which has a cost of $68 billion. But his overall argument is no different than the ones HSR opponents and Republicans have been using for five years, which is that omg HSR is too expensive and we have other things to pay for:
It’s clear to me that what is currently being proposed is nothing even close to what was approved five years ago. I’d rather see California spend $3 billion on finding a clean and reliable water supply, creating private-sector jobs by providing more career and technical education programs or expanding affordable neighborhood health care clinics into the neediest areas of our Central Valley.
Of course, all of these things can and should be funded as well as high speed rail. California is an extremely wealthy state and can easily pay for all of these things. Republicans are no longer able to block the state from paying for those things, since Democrats have supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature (even with Vidak turning a Senate seat from blue to red).
Vidak does not come out and say HSR is a bad idea in his op-ed. But neither does he propose solutions to the problems he raises. Instead he just offers the idea of revoting on the 2008 proposal and a number of reasons why voters should kill the project. At that point, presumably, HSR would die a quiet death and never be heard from again.
Such a revote is a typical Republican ploy. Rather than try and solve some of the state’s most pressing problems like transportation, climate, and energy, they just want to destroy those solutions so their corporate allies can continue making money and maintaining power by prolonging a failed oil-based economic system. Under those conditions, laid out like Vidak suggests, a revote is pointless and unnecessary.
But going back to the ballot regarding HSR might actually be a good idea – if the proposal were constructive rather than destructive. With House Republicans determined to defund government including high speed rail, the state needs to explore its own solutions for funding the completion of high speed rail. California has a wide range of transportation needs and not enough funding for them. That includes completing high speed rail from SF to LA, but it also includes BART upgrades, Caltrain operating funds, the Metro Rail 30/10 plan, expansion of Amtrak California routes (and perhaps maintaining current levels of funding given Congressional efforts to defund Amtrak), expansion of bus service in cities and counties across the state, and much more.
Last year SPUR put out a plan that showed how California could fund high speed rail on its own. SPUR’s plan combines a variety of new revenue sources to generate $2.7 billion a year for HSR. Increase the size of some of those revenue sources – a higher statewide gas tax, for example – and you would have money available to support those other objectives listed above as well.
The November 2016 ballot would be an excellent place for a statewide transportation funding package that includes funding to complete HSR and meet other needs. Republicans would oppose even placing it on the ballot anyway, despite the numerous benefits it would bring to the state. But with a supermajority in each house, 2014 may be the time for Democrats to come together to craft such a package and place it on the November 2016 ballot.