CA: Rail Plan Hits Bump

California's high-speed rail plans have morphed into high-stakes bait-and-switch.

Voters in 2008 authorized bonds for one plan and now rail-backers, led by Gov. Jerry Brown, propose something entirely different. If that is what they want, they must return to the ballot.

There has been much discussion about lowball cost estimates, starting construction in the sparsely populated Central Valley, inflated job forecasts, misappropriation of money for public relations, overly optimistic ridership estimates, route alignments and the absence of private-sector investment.

All important issues.

But here is the most fundamental one: Voters never approved the latest plan. In 2008, they were promised a $45 billion system that, according to the ballot analysis of Proposition 1A, "connects San Francisco Transbay Terminal to Los Angeles Union Station and Anaheim, and links the state's major population centers, including Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area, the Central Valley, Los Angeles, the Inland Empire, Orange County and San Diego."

That price assumed the section between San Francisco and Anaheim would cost about $31 billion. Now the price of that portion has more than doubled, and cost estimates no longer include Sacramento and San Diego. Prop. 1A, approved by 53 percent of voters, would never have passed if residents of those cities knew they would be cut out.

As part of the deal, voters approved $9.95 billion in state bond funding, with the balance to come from the federal government and private investors.

Dan Richard, the governor's hand-picked High-Speed Rail Authority chairman, argues the total project cost shouldn't endanger voter approval of the state's contribution. That is ridiculous. It is one thing for voters to agree to gamble nearly $10 billion on a statewide system estimated at $45 billion. It is another to risk it on a project that costs more than twice as much, covers half the distance and, aside from a one-time $3.5 billion federal contribution, lacks other funding.

It is clear Brown and Richard remain hellbent on pushing ahead. Richard, who promised objectivity, has become a blind advocate. We expect they will revise the plan to address some of the legitimate questions. But it still won't meet the Prop. 1A parameters. The state can't legally issue long-term bonds without voter approval, but there has been no such OK the current plan.

Richard argues voters gave the Legislature their proxy to change the plan by requiring elected officials to sign off on the bonds. That is bogus. Voters required the Legislature to ensure bond money would be used only for the project promised in Prop. 1A.

Richard argues delays caused by another vote would endanger federal money. Key legislators from his party dispute that.

Brown and Richard understandably fear they will lose at the polls next time. Probably so. Voters have wised up and know that high-speed rail is a luxury we can't afford.

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