News

Simitian seeks to postpone high-speed-rail funding

Amid calls to end $98.5 billion project, legislator favors taking a year to rethink it

Three years after California voters approved a $9.95 billion bond to build the nation's first high-speed-rail system, a debate over its funding has turned into a legislative game of chicken, with billions of dollars on the line.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority, which is charged with building the new system, has asked the state Legislature to release $2.7 billion to pay for the first stretch of the rail line -- a 130-mile segment in the Central Valley.

But Republicans in the state Legislature introduced a bill this week to halt state funding for the controversial project, which has seen its estimated price tag swell from less than $40 billion in 2008 to $98.5 billion in the latest business plan. And while Democrats have been less fixed in their stance, they too have expressed hesitation about releasing billions of dollars in state funds. State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, told the Weekly this week that he is not ready to support releasing bond funds for the project and is calling for the rail authority to slow down and give the project some more thought.

The rail authority has maintained it needs state funds to match the $3.5 billion it has received for the project in federal grants and has argued that the Legislature's failure to release the bond funds immediately would jeopardize the federal contribution. When a peer-review committee recommended earlier this month that legislators withhold state funds until the rail authority addresses what the committee considered flaws in its business plan, the authority issued a 10-page response to legislators blasting the group's conclusion.

"Any delay in proceeding with the Initial Construction Segment (the Central Valley section) at this time will result in the loss of the existing $3.5 billion in federal funding for a California high-speed rail system," Thomas Umberg, chair of the rail authority's board of directors, wrote in the letter.

The peer-review committee, Umberg wrote, "fails to assess the risks of not proceeding with the program at this juncture," including loss of federal funding, potential elimination of state funds and the impact of losing $950 million to connect regional rail systems with high-speed rail (funds that voters approved as part of the $9.95 billion bond).

"These risks are present and real and represent lost opportunity of enormous cost and lasting consequence," Umberg wrote.

But Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, doesn't believe Umberg. This week, she introduced a bill to halt state funding for high-speed rail. Harkey pointed to recent critical audits of high-speed rail from the Legislative Analyst's Office and the rail authority's peer-review group as evidence that the project is heading in the wrong direction and should be stopped. She also cited a recent Field Poll survey that showed more than half of state voters supporting a fresh vote on the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles rail line.

"This one project has the potential to double our state's debt and become a huge future drain on our state's budget, while our existing rail and roadway infrastructure is in dire need of repair," Harkey said in a statement. "California does not need a shiny new heavily subsidized toy with no confirmed ridership, when we have real shovel-ready infrastructure jobs in every community awaiting funding."

Simitian, who chairs a budget committee that focuses on the rail project, said he prefers a third option -- taking a year to rethink the project and address the myriad issues brought up in recent critical audits. These include uncertainty over future funding, planning for the next construction phase and whether the rail authority is complying with Proposition 1A, which requires that the first segment constructed be a "usable segment."

"I'm convinced that at this point, we're effectively presented with two choices -- neither one of which is particularly appealing from my perspective," Simitian told the Weekly. "On the one hand, we have a proposal to spend $6.2 billion on a project in Central Valley that I'm not yet ready to support. On the other hand, absent that, we're told that you'd be putting an end to the debate about high-speed rail and that's the end of that.

"I think that's a bad set of choices."

Simitian said he is working with his staff and with state analysts and attorneys to determine what exactly the state would get for the $6.2 billion, to ascertain that the project as described in the business plan complies with Proposition 1A, and to determine how flexible the federal-grant deadlines are. Until these questions are answered, Simitian said, he's not ready to support the rail authority's request.

"Sometimes, you have to go slow to go fast," Simitian said. "To date, I have not made a believer of the High Speed Rail Authority on that principle. They lurch from ad hoc decision to ad hoc decision.

"That's no way to make a $6.2 billion decision, let alone a $100 billion decision."

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by peninsula commuter
a resident of another community
on Jan 13, 2012 at 9:44 am

Way to go Joe! I'm pleasantly surprised by your fiscal responsibility and political courage in standing up to this gasping beached whale of a Boondoggle.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Jan 13, 2012 at 9:57 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

Way to go Joe!!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of Stanford
on Jan 13, 2012 at 10:41 am

Senator Simitian's position is still far short of opposition to this ongoing fiasco. What exactly is it about this project that is keeping him from coming out against it definitively, instead of just urging that CHSRA do some more thinking about it before the legislature gives CHSRA matching funds? Could his approach be a Simitian variation on the 'death by a thousand cuts' strategy, one that obviates any need for him to stand up and oppose the project unambiguously? Or is there something else at work here beneath the surface that I am overlooking, like an upcoming political campaign that requires not alienating voters who support this HSR project, such as potential construction workers, hardware providers, and consultants?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Toady
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 13, 2012 at 2:35 pm

"What exactly is it about this project that is keeping him from coming out against it definitively"

He's a Democrat.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 13, 2012 at 3:38 pm

Spendng decisions should prevail over financing decisions.

High Speed Rail advocates have it backwards. They are saying we should do this project because funds are available, even though the project is seriously questionable.

I don't like Sarah Palin, but I do credit her for killing a "bridge to nowhere" that was funded and not needed. This is no different.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Deep Throat
a resident of another community
on Jan 13, 2012 at 4:08 pm

The Democratic Governor and the Democratic majorities in the Legislature need to terminate the High Speed Rail project before it becomes an issue in the 2014 general election that will enable the Republicans to win the Governorship and a majority of the Assembly and State Senate seats.

The proposals by Senator Joe Simitian and Assemblyman Jerry Hill to delay for a year the final decision to terminate the project so that it does not affect their short term interests in this year's election will just make it harder next year for the Democrats in Sacramento to think of their long term interests and make a decision to terminate the project in the face of a potential initiative measure from the Republicans and their Tea Party allies that asks the voters to terminate the High Speed Rail project at the November 2014 election.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Morgan
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Jan 13, 2012 at 8:35 pm

The CA HSR project has been a fraud from the get go. I read the ballot initiative and thought its assumptions and claims to be absurd and voted against it. It seems that the only supporters of this greasy pork filled sausage on rails are the CA HSR Authority, big labor unions, and their indebted politicians. Every authoritative review of the CA HSR project, that was not a result of the CA HSR spin machine, has uniformly criticized every aspect of this project. Seemingly, no leaf has been left unturned, and the conclusion years after the ballot initiative is that it's a bigger fraud now, than it was when it was hatched by the ballot initiative process. Is any one still surprised by this? Sadly, apparently so, enter Joe.

In spite of being confronted by one sobering report after another, Joe Simitian still isn't sure what to do. Stopping the CA HSR is the sensible solution, but no, Joe needs another year to consider his options, er, his political options I suspect. My guess is that by trying to defer any real decision regarding HSR, Joe postpones being forced by the voters to kill the project, and anger the big labor unions, who seem to be in the driver seat with the Democrats in Sacramento.

Do the right thing Joe, terminate the CA HSR Authority and the ridiculous as proposed rail project BEFORE you get termed out.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Bill Hough
a resident of Los Altos
on Jan 14, 2012 at 9:00 am

Joe Simitian is desperately trying to put lipstick on a pig.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Ted Crocker
a resident of another community
on Jan 14, 2012 at 9:17 am

Robert of Stanford is right. The Dems are going to do all they can to keep this pig alive through the election, and that includes perpetuating the empty promises to those they depend on for re-election. Joe Simitian has drawn the line in the sand and ignored it so many times with the HSRA, I've lost count.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 14, 2012 at 3:29 pm

Simitian will be running for county supervisor. One way to send a message to Simitian is to NOT dontate to his campaign, and do NOT vote for Simitian.

A significant drop in votes & campaign donations to Simitian will send a message to all the other members of the state legislature, and they will terminate HSR, even if Simitian won't do it.


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