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July 6, 2012 - 5:56 pm

Skyrocketing costs, looming bankruptcy, nationwide mockery and even a few reticent Democrats could not stop Jerry Brown’s bullet train juggernaut today, as the California State Senate just voted to spend the first $7.9 billion — including $3.3 billion of Federal stimulus funds — on a high speed rail line connecting…Madera and Bakersfield.

This is supposed to be the first leg of an eventual system that will connect San Francisco to Los Angeles, but the costs for that plan are so astronomical ($68 billion is the current low-ball estimate, but that goes up by the hour) and it’s so far in the projected future (15, 20 years — who knows?) that no one can can confidently say whether there will ever be a complete SF-LA line, much less when, nor how in the world it might get financed.

No time for worries, it’s full-speed ahead!:

Legislature approves high-speed rail spending:

A divided state Senate approved billions of dollars in funding to start construction on California’s ambitious high speed rail line Friday, handing the controversial project $7.9 billion in state and federal money for the first 130-miles of track and a series of local transit upgrades.

The funding measure, which was easily approved in the Assembly Thursday, will now head to Gov. Jerry Brown, who pushed lawmakers to approve it. In all, the state Legislature this week authorized the issuance of $4.6 billion in state bond funds – about half of the $9.9 billion approved by voters in 2008 – and opened the door for California to obtain $3.3 billion in federal grants, for a total of $7.9 billion in spending.

It was a key vote: Federal transportation officials had warned that if they money was not made available this summer, they would yank the $3.4 billion in stimulus funds and give it to other states.


Sen. Michael Rubio compared it to President Lincoln’s pursuit of transcontinental rail.

“In the era of term limits, how many chances do we have to vote on something this important and long lasting? How many chances do we have to vote on something that will inject a colossal stimulus into today’s economy while looking into the future far beyond our days in this house?” said Senate President pro tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. “Do we have the ability to see beyond the challenges, the political point-scoring and controversies of today? Are we willing to take some short-term risk, knowing that the benefit to this great state will be, for centuries, enormous?”

The cost of the high-speed rail line – now estimated at $68 billion – has ballooned in size since voters approved the high-speed rail bonds four years ago, and public support for the bullet train has fallen as projected costs rose. The high-speed system would connect San Francisco to Los Angeles with trains expected to run as fast as 220 mph.

Most of the money approved this week – about $5.9 billion – is for construction of the first, 130-mile stretch of railway in the Central Valley from Bakersfield to Madera.

Republicans also attacked the project’s escalating costs — it was estimated at $40 billion when voters authorized the project in 2008. It’s still not clear how the state will pay for later phases of construction.

I’ll fess up: I love trains. I’ve ridden the TGV from Paris to Lyon, the Eurostar from London to Brussels, and it’s a slick way to travel — at least in high-ridership areas with major cities near each other. I’ve ridden steam trains and ratchet-railways and ramshackle locals stuffed with chickens and chain-smoking peasants. No matter how futuristic or retro, I can’t resist a train ride.

But even I, an unapologetic train lover, shake my head in dismay at this vote. The cost isn’t just high, it’s patently absurd, like a script from a Swiftian satire about political boondoggles.

And the first leg to be completed — which the Obama administration insisted upon, because it’s the only portion of the route that isn’t undergoing environmental challenges — essentially leads from nowhere to nowhere. Perhaps the citizens of Bakersfield will protest at being classified as “nowhere,” but the good people of Madera (whose own State Senator voted against the funding) I’m sure are honest to know that their city has minimal (if any) tourist or business-travel appeal. The number of people who need to take high-speed rail from Madera to Bakersfield can be counted on one finger, while the number of people who desperately need to rocket from Bakersfield to Madera is approximately one less than that.

Will the rest of the line ever be completed in my lifetime? Doubtful. And even if it were, as critics have rightfully pointed out from the beginning, the high-speed rail will cover the same route as innumberable commercial air carriers who travel the exact same distance in less time, for less money, with vastly more frequent departures. What motivation would anyone have to take the train, aside from nostalgic old train buffs in goofy conductors’ caps (present company excluded)?

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