Take "The Little Engine That Could," remove the hero's underdog charm and the inevitability of a happy ending, and you've got the saga of the California bullet train as the project nears the scheduled start of construction next month.
It thinks it can, it thinks it can. Planners think it can get over a mountain of legal, financial and procedural worries, the latest being a red flag about safety and quality in a major contractor's proposal. Gov. Jerry Brown and other supporters think it still can become the 21st-century jewel of the state's transportation system, carrying residents and tourists between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2 hours 40 minutes.
Who else thinks so?
The high-speed rail project born of state voters' approval of Proposition 1A in 2008 now seems to be powered solely by the determination of proponents with reputations and jobs on the line. The only happy ending in sight may be one in which the project's problems stop it while there's still time to turn back. The whole idea would slam to a halt if Californians were allowed to vote again -- as, increasingly clearly, they should be.
There are open legal questions.
Arguments began last week in a lawsuit against the California High-Speed Rail Authority by Kern County, claiming current plans violate Proposition 1A's requirement that all money and environmental approvals be in place before construction begins. Disputes continue over which state and federal bodies have authority over the United States' first bullet-train project.
There are unsettled economic questions. Lots of them.
What is the whole thing going to end up costing, and will it make money? The original $33 billion price tag rose to nearly $100 billion before being pared to its current $68.5 billion. Is vital private financing coming? Without an updated business plan showing sufficient revenue, it's hard to entice investors. Is the needed federal money on its way? Powerful California Republicans in the House vow to block federal funding beyond the $3.3 billion already committed.
The discussion of finances leads to talk of safety.
These concerns come from reports that contractor Tutor Perini was selected for the first 29 miles of rail construction because it's the lowest of the five bidders (at $985 million), even though its proposal earned the lowest technical scores for safety and design. The High-Speed Rail Authority shifted its priorities to emphasize low cost, vaulting Sylmar-based Tutor Perini over two European firms.
Not that taxpayers should complain about efforts to contain costs. But there must be no scrimping on safety and quality for a 220-mph train. If the state has to sacrifice quality to make the bullet train affordable, that's another sign it's unaffordable.
The Tutor Perini contract is scheduled for final approval at the High-Speed Rail Authority's meeting Thursday in Sacramento, and Californians should tell these officials to slow down.
Time is running out to put the brakes on the Little Engine That Shouldn't.