Whatever you think of the proposed California bullet train project, this is no way to run a railroad.
Last Wednesday, California Governor Jerry Brown let it be known that he will not include "modifications" to the California Environmental Quality Act in the legislation that will request $6 billion to start construction for $68 billion high-speed rail project.
President Obama's stimulus included $8 billion for high-speed rail, and $3.5 billion of that could go to California but only if California starts construction by December 31, 2012. If the shovels don't hit the dirt before the ball drops in Times Square, the Golden State will not be eligible for any more high-speed rail stimulus funds.
And this is where the governor's decision to drop "modifications" turns out to be a likely death warrant for the bullet train project. The "modification" he dropped was a protection from lawsuits by environmental groups. Without that protection, lawyers will be able to file suits seeking injunctions to stop the project from going forward until an environmental review can be completed.
Lawsuits have already been filed by the farm bureaus of Merced County and Madera County. The city of Chowchilla filed a suit this month.
It can take more than six years of hourly billings to complete the environmental review process that's necessary under the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Environmental Protection Act.
So that means no high-speed rail for California, unless the governor revisits the idea of legal exemptions for the project, which, as a matter of fact, he did on Friday. "I think it's a question of when we push and when we don't," the governor told reporters.
The trains may not be racking up the miles, but they're already racking up costs. The California High-Speed Rail Authority just announced that Jeff Morales, its new chief executive, will be paid an annual salary of $365,000, plus bonuses -- more than any elected official in the state.
The L.A. Times reports that Morales came over directly from Parsons Brinckerhoff, the California High-Speed Rail Authority's "top consultant." The company provides engineering, architecture and construction management services.
This is an example of how transportation "projects" can soak up scarce tax dollars that could be used for actual transportation right now. Some cities provide free and convenient bus and van service to make life easier for people who are ready to stop driving. Local buses and vans can run without the kind of engineering, architecture and construction management services necessary to build a train that links Southern California and Northern California.
For $68 billion, California could buy Southwest Airlines. Ten times.
In a related story, the board of directors for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will meet on Thursday to consider a new ballot measure that would permanently extend Measure R, the half-cent sales tax for transit projects that voters approved in 2008. The tax is set to expire in 2039, but the MTA wants to borrow more money against the future tax revenues, and that sunset date is interfering with their revenue projections.
They want to spend money that they won't collect until after 2039, and they want to pay decades of interest to bondholders for the privilege of borrowing it now.
Meanwhile, people in the Valley still won't be able to get where they want to go, because they'll still have to find a way to get from their home to the busway or train station, and then they'll have to find a way to get home again.
The Valley needs safe, convenient, almost-door-to-door transportation for seniors and others who don't drive. But we'll never get it if every penny of transportation money is blown on big, splashy construction projects that enrich consultants and leave residents looking for a ride.