Gov. Jerry Brown juggling numbers to save high-speed rail 

Gov. Jerry Brown is scaling back the state’s highly controversial bullet train project to keep it alive.

Just three months ago, his administration unveiled, with great fanfare, a revised “business plan” for building the north-south bullet train system to answer the embryonic project’s many critics.

The project would be slowed down and stretched out timewise, with a new and supposedly more realistic cost structure, officials declared. It would be, California High-Speed Rail Authority chairman Tom Umberg said at the unveiling, “a new time, a new day and a new beginning.”

But the revised cost of about $100 billion, or three times the original estimate, shocked many and raised questions about whether the state, which had only $9.95 billion in bond funds available, could raise the remainder from the federal government and private or foreign investors.

The authority’s own “peer review” committee issued a scathing analysis, saying beginning construction without firm financing would be risky. The state auditor’s office echoed those sentiments.

Statewide polling indicated Californians had turned against the project, and legislators whose votes were needed to appropriate construction balked.

Brown vigorously defended the project, adopting it as a symbol of California’s transformation to a green economy. But Umberg stepped down so Brown could appoint his own chairman, longtime adviser Dan Richard, who had helped rewrite the business plan. The agency’s operating head, Roelof van Ark, who had alienated some legislators, departed.

Having seized personal control of the high-risk project, Brown now owns it — and is ordering another revision to make it more financially and politically palatable.

He dropped hints about that last week in radio and television interviews, saying in one, “It’s not going to be $100 billion. That’s way off,” and adding, “I’m trying to redesign it in a way that in and of itself will be justified by the state investment. We do have other sources of money — for example, cap-and-trade, which is this measure where you make people who produce greenhouse gases pay certain fees — that will be a source of funding going forward for the high-speed rail.”

So what’s Brown up to?

He wants the construction timetable accelerated to reduce the inflationary aspect of cost projections, perhaps by merging the high-speed system with standard-speed train service to sharply reduce right-of-way and construction costs.

It’s not clear how he would use the cap-and-trade fees, but they could repay bullet train bonds to protect the general fund and perhaps service additional bond issues that would lower the need for federal and investor funds.

It will emerge, as Brown once was wont to say.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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