2014: The Year California Goes Its Own Way?
The California high speed rail project will face two related tasks in 2014: resolving the lawsuit that ended in a Sacramento judge ordering changes to the financing plan, and starting construction on the project’s first segment near Fresno. But to do those things, California will have to spend 2014 starting to blaze its own trail on building high speed rail without being able to count on future federal funding.
As we saw in 2013, federal austerity policies and Tea Party rule in half of Congress has blocked new federal dollars and caused a series of related problems, one of which was Judge Michael Kenny’s August ruling that the California High Speed Rail Authority needed to revise its financing plan. California cannot throw the Tea Party out of power in Congress on its own. But voters have thrown their ilk out of power in the Golden State. That, combined with California’s massive economic output, creates conditions that are favorable to the state following Palo Alto native Lindsey Buckingham’s advice and going its own way on funding the project.
SPUR has already laid out the basic elements of what it would take for California to fund HSR alone. The most immediate and likely source are the cap-and-trade funds, and last month I went into some detail about how that might work in practice.
It’s reasonable to expect cap-and-trade funds to play some role in the Authority’s compliance with Judge Kenny’s ruling. And we may learn whether or not that is the case as soon as this week. Governor Jerry Brown will deliver his 2014-15 budget proposal this coming Friday. I would not be surprised if it includes using some cap-and-trade funds for high speed rail.
The Authority needs to deliver its response to the Court by spring, and hopefully the judge will approve it soon thereafter. Some construction activities have already begun near Fresno, but the big work has not, and the Authority is probably waiting for the lawsuit to be resolved before doing so. They have just enough time left before the September 2017 deadline, but not so much that further delays are acceptable. Hopefully we will see a true groundbreaking in Fresno very soon.
Some other things to watch for regarding high speed rail in 2014:
Statewide elections in November: 2014 will be the first time that the all-Democratic state government, including statewide offices, are up for re-election. Jerry Brown is going to be re-elected easily. But he may want some insurance, and resolving legal questions about high speed rail and getting construction under way can help make that happen. That’s especially true for Democrats in the Legislature, defending their 2/3 majority. Republicans will try again to make an issue out of HSR in these elections, and they will probably fail just as they did in 2012. Congressional elections are in November as well, and so far it’s a crap shoot. We could lose the Senate to the Tea Party, or Democrats could retake the House. Who knows how it will play out.
What’s going on with Vegas HSR? 2013 was a bad year for passenger rail from Southern California to Las Vegas, with the XpressWest bullet train and the X Train both running into major funding obstacles that have put both plans into deep freeze, at least for now. In 2014 Senator Harry Reid will continue doing all he can to save high speed rail to Vegas, but my guess is he will struggle until the House is back in Democratic hands.
Will there be any movement on a statewide transportation plan? This was a subject that got a lot of attention in late 2012 but fell off the radar almost completely in 2013. California needs more money to fund transit operations, expansion of mass transit, and road maintenance. The state needs to significantly increase the amount of money it spends on those things, and it needs to free local governments to help out as well by getting rid of the 2/3 requirement for most taxes for transit. One or both would be a very good thing for Democrats to do while they’ve got the supermajority, but they seem pretty reluctant to do so. We may have to wait until 2015 to see real movement in Sacramento on a plan, which is unfortunate. The need is here and the time is now.
What else are you looking forward to in 2014 regarding high speed rail?