Like rampaging Godzilla in all those Japanese monster movies, the unpopular and expensive bullet train has proven almost impossible to kill. However, the project’s critics may have a new weapon that will stop it dead in its tracks. Using the initiative process, opponents hope the public will be willing to trade the train for an increased and more reliable water supply, a seemingly attractive proposal after years of drought.
Looking back, it is clear the 2008 campaign that convinced voters to approve a $10 billion bond to kick off the bullet train, was a con. It was built on fantasy. You can almost hear the cigar chomping carnival barker calling out, “Step right up, get on board, we’ll whisk you between Los Angeles and San Francisco in only a couple of hours for the inconsequential sum of just 50 bucks.”
Additionally, voters were promised the entire project would come in at less than $35 billion, the balance of which would come from private sector investment and the federal government.
An independent study of the project, The California High Speed Rail Proposal: A Due Diligence Report by the respected Reason Foundation, clearly documented that the actual cost of the project would be closer to $100 billion and serve far fewer riders than claimed by backers of the bullet train. Turns out that all the negative predictions about High Speed Rail set forth in that study have not only come to pass, the project is even worse than thought.
Although the critical report was released before the election it was not enough to change the outcome. The duplicitous campaign in favor, paid for by labor unions and contractors that expected to benefit from the project, was augmented by the title and summary for the ballot measure, which were prepared by the Legislature – the same politicians who placed the Proposition 1A bond on the ballot. The title and summary were so over the top favorable to the bond proposal that alert taxpayers sued over its misleading content. The court agreed that the Legislature’s sleazy manipulation of the ballot process violated the Political Reform Act. But the decision was months too late to have any real effect because voters had already approved the new bond.
Over time, the public came to realize that they had been had. Previous support turned to dismay as it was revealed that the train would not be high speed; it would be a “blended” system that would nearly double promised travel times and the cost for tickets would double as well.
When Jerry Brown was returned to the governor’s office in 2010, he adopted the train project as his own legacy. His father, who served as governor from 1959 to 1967, is still revered in many quarters as the great builder of universities and highways. But it proved impossible to entice the private sector to participate because no sane investor thinks the project is based on a sound business model. And when the federal government turned off the spigot, the governor was forced to convince the Legislature to divert cap-and-trade funds to keep his pet project on life support.
But now, thanks to an initiative authored by George Runner, a member of the State Board of Equalization, and Senator Bob Huff, voters in November may have the option of trading in the $8 billion that remains unspent from the bullet train bond, for new water storage facilities and other programs to increase supply.
Of course, like any measure that spends billions of dollars that must be repaid by taxpayers, voters will want to carefully vet this measure. Still, with water consumption limits imposed by state and local agencies that have Californians taking fewer showers and replacing their lawns with rock gardens, voters may be willing to trade the bullet train fantasy for the security of knowing, when they open the tap, water will be there.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.