When Florida Gov. Rick Scott canceled his state's high-speed rail project – emulating what happened in Ohio and Wisconsin – California bullet train advocates immediately sought diversion of federal funds to their state.
The High-Speed Rail Authority plans to begin a tiny section of the system in the San Joaquin Valley next year, clearly hoping that it would be a psychological – and political – commitment even though the project's financial dimensions are still cloudy.
When voters narrowly approved a $9.95 billion bond issue in 2008 (with a boosterish official summary that courts later ruled was illegally written by the Legislature), the cost was pegged at $33 billion. It later rose to $43 billion, and outside experts say it could be as much as $65 billion.
The HSRA is now seeking input from private investors but acknowledges that they probably would want "revenue guarantees," meaning operating subsidies from taxpayers, which state law specifically prohibits.
All of this might be cleared up if the HSRA produced a long-delayed business plan, and HSRA officials got a tongue-lashing about the stall during a recent budget hearing.
Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, complained that "you've already decided on the route, and yet we lack an updated financial plan of who's paying for this. We lack legal analysis about any concept of operating subsidy. We lack a business plan that really tells us what is the modeling we can have faith in about the ridership numbers."
Lowenthal, who has since introduced a bill to reconstitute the HSRA, aimed his remarks at agency boss Roelof van Ark, who with other bullet train boosters is pushing the San Joaquin Valley segment and even organizing political demonstrations for it.
E-mails, some written by van Ark, last week outlined plans to pack a congressional hearing in Fresno this week with supporters, including contractors. The hearing – unrelated to high-speed rail – is being conducted by House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Florida.
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