Debra J. Saunders, Chronicle Columnist
Published 07:42 p.m., Monday, July 9, 2012
State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, probably is best known as the author of California’s bill to ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. After Friday’s vote, Simitian may be best known as the Democrat who warned his colleagues not to issue $4.6 billion in bonds for big-ticket high-speed rail.
“Any of us who talks to our folks knows that they’re asking the same questions,” Simitian reasoned. “They’re saying, ‘Really? You made these cuts. We’re threatened with more. And you want to build a high-speed train?’ ”
The state Senate, nonetheless, passed the bill with 21 votes. Gov. Jerry Brown praised lawmakers for their “bold action.”
Bold or foolhardy? According to a recent Field Poll, Brown’s tax-increase measure on the November ballot has the support of 54 percent of California voters. That’s a tight lead, as 21 percent of the measure’s supporters said they would be less likely to vote for Brown’s tax initiative if the Legislature began funding high-speed rail.
The Senate’s vote to issue the first high-speed rail bonds guarantees the flow of $3.3 billion in promised federal funds, Simitian noted, but how will lawmakers feel if they wake up on Nov. 7 to find that voters rejected Brown’s higher taxes? In that event, Sacramento will have to impose billions of dollars in budget cuts.
The yes votes do have a leg to stand on: In 2008, voters approved a bond measure to fund the first $9.9 billion for a high-speed rail project, now expected to cost $68 billion, to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco via the Central Valley. A recent Field Poll shows that voters would reject it today.
What seemed like a good concept has not fared so well in the planning stage. For starters, it’s in the wrong place. The Obama administration made it clear that California would not get federal money unless construction starts with a 130-mile stretch between Bakersfield and Madera. Given the sparse population, wags took to calling the project The Train To Nowhere.
It’s at the wrong time. Most Californians won’t be able to use it for a decade. Besides, if folks want to get from L.A. to S.F. quickly, they can fly without tapping state coffers anew.
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