The California State Legislature isn't exactly the most popular group of people these days. As the state budget crisis worsens - and as California's bond rating takes another hit - Californians are losing what little patience they had for their legislators, who remain unable to produce a budget solution. It's not for lack of trying, as the 2/3rds rule and Republican obstinacy has produced the ongoing delays and deficits. But it reflects poorly on the legislators, who are facing some of the lowest approval ratings ever.
It doesn't help matters when the Legislature proposes something that is manifestly stupid, wasteful, and unnecessary. And that is what has happened regarding high speed rail on the peninsula, where the legislature has caved to Peninsula NIMBYs at the possible cost of $1 billion in stimulus funds:
An obscure sentence inserted deep in a massive state budget bill could delay construction of the proposed high-speed rail route from San Jose to San Francisco, potentially costing the region more than $1 billion in federal stimulus money, high-speed rail planners said Monday.
The language requires that as a condition of getting $139 million next year from the state budget to hire staff and engineering firms, the state High Speed Rail Authority must study "alternative alignments" to the route along the Caltrain tracks, approved by the authority last July.
Though the bill has passed both chambers of the state Legislature, its fate is uncertain because it remains part of the bigger state budget imbroglio.
This is ridiculous. The CHSRA already studied the Peninsula corridor, already studied the Altamont alignment, and already concluded that the Caltrain corridor is the best solution. They spent 11 years on these studies. Neither the Legislature nor the Peninsula NIMBYs have any place calling for another study just because they didn't like the outcome of the first one.
This is especially troubling given the financial implications of the Legislature's meddling:
On Monday, Rod Diridon, a former Santa Clara County supervisor who sits on the high-speed rail board, said that restudying the route could jeopardize federal stimulus money that requires eligible projects have construction started by September 2012.
"If it were to stay in, only our corridor in the whole state would be penalized, and all the federal stimulus money would go to Southern California," Diridon said.
The San Jose-to-San Francisco route will be seeking $1.3 billion in stimulus money, Diridon said. Two other proposed high-speed-rail routes near Los Angeles also will be seeking similar amounts.
The Peninsula NIMBYs would be perfectly happy with this outcome - their goal is to kill the HSR project in their own backyard, and have shown no regard for fiscal responsibility (such as their proposal of an extremely costly tunnel without offering any method of paying for it).
But it would cost the state as much as $1 billion in HSR stimulus, which translates into thousands of jobs and a not insignificant boost to the local economy on the Peninsula, which in turn means rising tax receipts in Sacramento. I'm not surprised at the Peninsula NIMBYs for not caring about any of this. I am surprised at the Legislature for being incredibly reckless by approving this proposal.
Sen. Joe Simitian, who represents Palo Alto, understands as much, as he denied responsibility for this moronic provision:
Adding to the drama Monday was that neither Diridon nor any other member of the high-speed rail board said they knew who wrote the provision requiring the extra study.
"We're all mystified. The whole board was caught by surprise how the language got in the bill," Diridon said.
State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto — whose constituents are most upset by the route — said he's not the author.
"That's not my language. I didn't have anything to do with it," he said.
Political skulduggery may not be to blame. In the rush to finish the budget, legislative staff members crafted the new requirement based on what Peninsula residents who testified at hearings and senators seemed to want, said Brian Annis, transportation budget consultant on the state Senate budget committee.
"We were incorporating many different comments and issues that staff and legislators were involved in," Annis said. "As far as the specific language, we drafted something we thought was workable."
So the problem seems to be in the Senate Budget Committee. There are a LOT of Senators on that committee - including one familiar name:
Senator Alan Lowenthal.
Now granted, we don't know whether he was responsible for this provision. But it would not surprise me if he were. Senator Lowenthal has been working for the last year to gut the HSR project. My assessment has always been that he wants to turn the HSR project into a vehicle to deliver funds to commuter rail projects in Southern California, and that he has no commitment to the statewide project, and certainly not to the route voters approved in Prop 1A at the November 2008 election.
Was he behind the provision in question that would undermine the HSR project AND cost California $1 billion in HSR stimulus? We don't know, but someone in the Legislature was, and they're currently trying to keep quiet. These things don't just wind up in the legislation by accident. California deserves to know who in the State Senate believes that a few NIMBYs should have the power to upend 11 years of studies and cost the state $1 billion in stimulus funding.
It's also time for the Legislature to stop meddling with the HSR project. The CHSRA exists to provide clear leadership and project management that isn't tied down by the vicissitudes - and, frankly, the incompetence - of the state legislature, which has shown itself incapable of offering anything positive toward the HSR project. The legislature needs to take advantage of the budget delay by stripping this provision from the bill, and ensuring that the legislature remains committed to the HSR project as approved by voters in November.