I want a fireman’s pole in my house. It’d be perfect—I could slide straight down from my bedroom to the front door, saving countless hours of walking across halls and down stairs. I could even stop halfway to make a sandwich in the kitchen. But no matter how awesome it would be to have a fireman’s pole in my house, I can’t really afford it.
That’s the dilemma facing California leaders today. Would it be great to have a high-speed rail system running up and down the state? Of course. I buy the arguments that it would be good for the environment, ease our reliance on fossil fuels, and create a ton of jobs. It would also be kind of cool to zip down the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles with the ease of bullet trains in Europe and Asia.
But things have changed since voters approved the funding for the project in 2008. By any measure, the Obama economy has stagnated as both state and national debt have continued to pile up. According to a statewide poll this week, 56% of voters now oppose the project with just 39% in support.
The plan sold to voters cost $46 billion; now the state says it will cost $68 billion, hoping that the federal government and private investors make up the bulk of the cost. But as the non-partisan research group California Common Sense pointed out this week, when one factors in typical large infrastructure project overruns, the cost is closer to $99 billion, with $82 billion of that funding unsecured. If the Feds don’t pick up half the tab the cost soars to $203 billion.
Aside from the financial concerns of adding more debt to the state’s credit card, the political cost could be fatal for Governor Jerry Brown.
The Governor has spent his first two years doing very little except for pushing a tax increase. After failing to pass taxes legislatively, he’s placed a $50 billion tax hike on the November ballot (full disclosure, I’m working for the campaign opposed to it). And though this year’s budget is $6 billion bigger than last year’s, he has taken great care to cut certain spending so voters will be more likely to approve his initiative.
Conventional wisdom is that the approval of billions more in spending on the bullet train could wipe out any goodwill Brown gained through cutting back on state cars and cellphones. And it also comes just days after the Legislature failed to act on his modest pension reform plan, opting instead to go on summer vacation. Passing billions in unpopular spending while dismissing popular reform is not the way to sell a tax hike.
Brown may be able to successfully argue that the bullet train is a smart investment, and I may be able to convince my wife to install a fireman’s pole in the house. But I wouldn’t bet on either.