Because there aren’t many people around who oppose high-speed rail, I’m finding myself cast in the disagreeable position of honorary naysayer for the program. Most people, myself included, think it would do the state some good to have a way to get from north to south on whatever energy source we’ve developed over the next two decades.
But most people also understand that there are limits to all the good things we can buy or build. I’d really benefit (as would the climate) from buying a house in Orinda, and lousy market notwithstanding, I can’t afford it to the point that I’m sure even Countrywide wouldn’t extend me credit for such a dwelling.
I’m not saying California can’t afford to borrow the money for high-speed rail. The experts say the state can at least take on the $10 billion worth of debt voters will be asked to approve on November’s ballot.
I was moved by something I read this morning from one of my favorite commenters on this blog, Robert Cruickshank. He has become the biggest acolyte for the 700-mile, 200-mph-plus rail network not in the employ of the California High-Speed Rail Authority or Parsons-Brinckerhoff that I can think of. He does a blog singing the praises of the enterprise and slamming the arguments of people he calls “deniers.” I won’t get into the problem with that last bit, but I’m sure anyone who reads this blog can figure it out.
Under the heading, “The Budget Deficit and High Speed Rail in California Are Totally Separate,” he uses a letter-to-the-editor published in the Ventura County Star as a foil for his argument:
Such an understanding of the real origins of our budget crisis shows us that this isn’t a zero-sum game. HSR funding – which California’s portion is $9 billion, not the $33 billion Ruiz claims – doesn’t come from the same pot of money as education funding. They are not just separate, but completely unrelated. And it’s not “regulation” that is the issue here, but the basic method of government. California needs more tax revenue to pay for its schools. That is a completely separate issue from how we finance high speed rail.
I’m not going to tackle Cruickshank’s belief that the Bullet Train Fairy is going to make the federal government cough up $20 billion for this project, but I will take issue with this idea that bond issues are, like, free money.
Sure, there’s a long-running problem with money in Sacramento and we need to find better ways of raising money for education and other needs the letter writer was complaining about. But the issues are not “unrelated” at all. When the state borrows money, it has to pay it back, with interest. Cruickshank believes that revenues from high-speed rail will more than cover that after its projected 2020 launch, but I don’t blame voters if they are skeptical about when and if such profits would actually materialize. France’s TGV bullet train does, I’ll stipulate, help pay for other rail service. Will that happen here? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else.
Budget protest photo from californiaprogressreport.com.