It’s the $68.4 billion question: Why would an otherwise fiscally conservative governor like Jerry Brown go full speed ahead with a $68.4 billion plan to build a high speed rail system with only $9.95 billion in hand and a lot of studies that point to a more realistic price tag of $100 billion?
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
The original sin was Proposition 1 on the November 1960 ballot. Then Governor Edmund G. Brown — the current governor’s father — firmly believed if he couldn’t get the State Water Project built, then nobody could.
In his own words in an oral history that the senior Brown provided in 1979 he said he knew it would cost $4 billion to build the complete project as designed and that to meet the needs 30 years out from 1960 that $2.5 billion was needed. Given the elder Brown and his staff determined asking for $2.5 billion was a political nonstarter at the ballot box, he asked for $1.75 billion in the bond language instead. If the bond passed he was prepared to cover the balance by going after tideland oil reserves.
The bond passed by a slim margin of 174,000 out of 5.8 million ballots.
Fast forward to 2008 and Proposition 1A.
The younger Brown knowing full well $9.95 billion won’t even come close to covering the tab to build a high speed rail system from Los Angeles to San Francisco goes full speed ahead driven by the same logic as his father — if he couldn’t get a high speed rail system built, then nobody could.
Then in 2011 the high speed rail authority unveiled an update of the plan that said the cost would be more like $98 billion. That triggered off a 7.0 on the Richter scale reaction from Californians so a pared back plan utilizing existing tracks near Los Angeles and San Francisco was rolled out months later to get back to the $68.4 billion figure
Meanwhile, the governor and other high speed rail supporters told voters private sector investors would come in droves once the bond was approved and the business plan scrutinized to bridge the gap that they contended was “only” $56 billion.
A funny thing happened on the way to Brown’s vision. The only private sector interest was from those that wanted lucrative construction and equipment contracts. Investors — who had no problem pouring billions into risky start-ups in the Silicon Valley — ran the other direction.
So what did Brown and his partners in high speed rail do? They rolled out the infamous $4.5 billion first 65-mile segment from the teeming metropolis of Boyden to Corcoran at the heart of what the Congressional Research Office has dubbed the nation’s New Appalachia.
Then Brown — like his father — dipped into other funds to keep the high speed rail going. This time around it was greenhouse cap and trade revenue. That means every time you pump a gallon of gas, 12 cents is going to try and plug the massive hole in the high speed rail financial operating plan.
Recently, the high speed rail rolled out a hybrid plan that calls for initial 220 mph service to go between Bakersfield and Merced and then switch to upgraded heavy rail trains to get to Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. On this end, that would mean transferring to an Altamont Corridor Express train in Merced and heading to San Jose via Manteca and the Altamont Pass.
So why would a governor who nixed a mid-year sales tax break for tampon sales noting it should be considered at budget time when legislators also need to determine what should be cut due to the proposal to reduce state revenue be so reckless in terms of fiscal responsibility when it comes to a $68.4 billion project?
The short answer: He was a good student of his father’s.
Edmund Brown in that same oral history in 1979 said his approach to getting the State Water Project was essentially a page taken from the game plan of the famous Louisiana Gov. Huey P. Long known by his nickname Kingfish: If you can’t get voters to finance a road, what you do is go ahead and build the road from each end leaving a big gap in the middle. The Kingfish said a road with a big gap would eventually be finished.
The only change in that game plan is high speed rail construction is starting in the middle of nowhere.
This brings us to next Tuesday’s election and Proposition 53.
Brown, who is about as tight-fisted with his campaign money as he is with funds for day-to-day state operations, is spending like a drunken sailor on a three-day shore leave after spending a year at sea to defeat Proposition 53.
What he doesn’t like about the measure is simple: It requires voter approval to spend $2 billion or more in revenue bonds for any state project.
And let’s be clear. The “any” state projects we are talking about is high speed rail and the twin tunnels that many believe carries a significantly higher than the $17 billion Brown claims they will cost.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at email@example.com or 209.249.3519.