Click photo to enlarge
An artist's conceptual design for high-speed trains just south of San Francisco, California. (NC3D. From California High Speed Rail web site.)

Gov. Jerry Brown said he will make an ill-advised request when the Legislature reconvenes after Christmas. OK, he didn't call it ill-advised, but a lot of people think it is.

He will ask for $6 billion ($2.7 billion in state bonds, $3.3 billion in federal grants) to begin work next fall on the first phase of a high-speed rail project that eventually will link (a) San Francisco to San Diego and (b) California to a mountain of debt.

This first stretch, connecting travel hot spots Bakersfield and Chowchilla (motto: "Great place for a women's prison"), says something about the rationale behind this undertaking.

Those destinations were not chosen because of customer demand or population density but because environmental permitting will be simpler, residential opposition should be modest and level terrain will make for easier construction.

In other words, it's the path of least resistance to get-it-while-you-can federal stimulus funding.

The $6 billion pays for only the rail system, by the way -- not the electrification, train cars or operating personnel -- just 130 miles of track. The U.S. House Budget Committee, which specializes in mismanagement, gave "the train to nowhere" its Boondoggle Award. Not coincidentally, more federal funding for high-speed rail is in jeopardy.


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Like many government projects, of course, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. The governor sees this as a bold first step to address California's future growth, its need for jobs, its passion for a clean environment and rising energy costs.

State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, agrees in principle: "The state's going to look dramatically different in 25 years. I'm a big believer that you have to change. You cannot continue to rely on single-occupancy vehicles or just aviation capacity."

But, he acknowledged, "This is a huge project. It's hard not to be concerned about the costs and the risks."

The famously frugal Brown seems oblivious to the mushrooming projections.

In 2008, when voters approved $9 billion in bonds, the California High-Speed Rail Authority estimated the project's total cost at $35.6 billion. Later, the figure was revised to $45.7 billion. Most recently -- are you sitting down? -- the estimate grew to $98.5 billion.

We told you to sit down.

This, remember, is before the first spike is driven into the ground. What's to guarantee the cost estimate won't increase again?

"Nothing," DeSaulnier conceded. "The other argument is if you don't build it, and the all the growth that's projected does happen, it's going to cost a lot more later."

That logic provides little comfort to budget pragmatists who have watched education and social services funding slashed and pension obligations spiral while the state bathes in red ink.

This hardly seems the time to assume added debt. It's like a man who can't keep up with payments on his Honda borrowing to buy a Tesla because it will save on fuel costs and help the planet.

DeSaulnier understands the skepticism. He admits to his own misgivings, especially regarding the project's first phase: "If I were doing it, I'd build it in the capital corridor and from San Diego to Los Angeles, to show that it works and to get ridership numbers."

If the vote were taken now, he says it would be close.

"The costs are huge," DeSaulnier said. "There's no way it doesn't give you a little lump in your breast."

When you're up to your assets in fiscal problems is a strange time to be financing a dream.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.