Opinion

Dan Walters: Jerry Brown may be getting desperate on bullet train

dwalters@sacbee.comJanuary 7, 2014 

Jerry Brown may be getting desperate about keeping the state’s increasingly unpopular – not to mention financially and legally challenged – bullet train project alive.

Faced with a judge’s insistence that the project follow the law about having its financial ducks lined up, Gov. Brown is now poised to shift money from the state’s “cap-and-trade” fees on greenhouse-gas emissions into the bullet train.

Brown, it’s been reported in The Bee and elsewhere, will propose in his 2014-15 budget that a portion of the fees being extracted from California business be committed to the bullet train.

While creating the new revenue stream might – emphasis, might – help persuade the court that there is a legally sufficient financial plan for the initial bullet train segment from the San Joaquin Valley into Southern California, as the law requires, the legality of such a shift is itself legally suspect.

The cap-and-trade law says that proceeds are to be used specifically to lower California’s greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, but the Legislature’s budget analyst, Mac Taylor, says bullet train construction would actually increase emissions “for many years” and a decrease, if any, would not occur until decades later.

One could easily envision that bullet train opponents who have successfully challenged the project in court would make common legal and political cause with environmental groups, which have pledged to hold Brown accountable for spending the cap-and-trade fees as the underlying law requires.

Brown’s ploy indicates that he and his handpicked High-Speed Rail Authority have no real answer to the judicial mandate that they follow the law voters enacted when they, by a very narrow margin, approved $9.95 billion in bullet train bonds in 2008.

The state cannot tap the bond money as long as there’s a legal cloud on the project and otherwise has only a few billion dollars from the federal government for laying a small section of San Joaquin Valley track.

Under its agreement with the Federal Railroad Administration, the state is to begin matching the federal money by June, but cannot do so without funds from the state bonds, or from the cap-and-trade fees.

The feds are informally allowing the state to spend the federal money without an immediate match, but that’s being challenged by congressional foes of the project, and with Republicans likely to retain control of the House this year, additional federal money is a dim prospect.

Brown, et al., apparently believe that diverting cap-and-trade fees into the bullet train may buy enough time to move some dirt and lay some track, with the hope that once construction begins, it will create a moral/political commitment to complete the project.

But the proposed diversion is more likely to be dumping more money into a bottomless rathole.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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