Phony cost estimates unlikely to stop bullet train’s momentum

Photo courtesy of Jon Curnow, flickr

Photo courtesy of Jon Curnow, flickr

San Francisco’s colorful former mayor Willie Brown caused a stir three years ago by writing some disturbing truths about major government infrastructure projects. The city’s Transbay Terminal project—billed as a future “Grand Central Station of the West”—was running $300 million over budget. Brown argued that no one should be shocked by such overruns, and that “we always knew” the estimate was artificially low. “In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment,” he wrote. “If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

Brown’s column was—and still is—widely quoted because California officials are busy advancing the largest infrastructure project ever built by the state. The California High Speed Rail project, energized by a statewide ballot initiative in 2008 that provided initial bond funding of $9.95 billion, seems to be exactly the kind of project Brown had in mind.

In terms of pricing and design, the current project bears little resemblance to the detailed promises made in Proposition 1A. The original price tag was less than $40 billion but quickly ballooned to $118 billion. Governor Jerry Brown ratcheted the number down to $64 billion—not that any number really means anything at this point. To get these proposed costs down, rail backers had to void one of the project’s core promises: that the train would connect Los Angeles to San Francisco (via the San Joaquin Valley) in two hours and 40 minutes. The updated plan requires “bullet” trains to share commuter tracks in the two main congested metropolitan areas, slowing travel time significantly.

The latest draft business plan, released last month, offers a reality check for anyone who thinks that the $64 billion price tag is even close to accurate. The rail authority had planned to break ground in Fresno and build tracks to the Los Angeles basin, but getting from the valley into Southern California means going over or under the Tehachapi Mountains, a large and geologically complex barrier. “[P]roject engineers are now analyzing solutions critics say could break the project’s budget or, just as bad, add too much travel time,” the Bakersfield Californian reported in 2014. “None of this is a deal-breaker, a spokeswoman for the California High-Speed Rail Authority said. She declined to go into details but insisted the agency will present a refined route over the Tehachapis.”

Instead of a refined route, the authority has decided to skip Southern California for now, and first take the much easier—and less costly—route to San Jose. Opponents have pinned their hopes on a legal challenge. But the same Sacramento Superior Court judge who previously found that the project had violated funding-related terms of Prop. 1A (but was later overruled) gave the project the green light in early March.

Willie Brown would understand. The goal is to get started and worry about the costs and details later. If Californians really knew the cost, nothing would get built. Unfortunately, when financial and other commandments are nothing more than suggestions, anything can get built. And the public can’t do much about it.

Loretta Sanchez Will Challenge Kamala Harris for U.S. Senate Seat

Loretta Sanchez1Flanked by a group of supporters at the Santa Ana train station, Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, D-Garden Grove, officially launched her campaign to succeed retiring U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer.

Thursday’s announcement, one day before the California Democratic Party’s spring convention, sets up a Democratic women showdown between Sanchez and Attorney General Kamala Harris. Under California’s Top 2 Primary, both Democrats could make it past the June primary and into a November 2016 general election run-off.

“I’m running to give a voice to every Californian,” said Sanchez, a moderate Democrat from Orange County. “I’m running for Senate because I bring national security and military experience in these critical times.”

Sanchez’s record in Congress

Sanchez brings to the race an impressive campaign resume that began with an improbable upset of six-term GOP Rep. Bob Dornan in 1996, an election she won by fewer than 1,000 votes. During her 10 terms in Washington, D.C., Sanchez has served on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee as well as been an influential member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

“There are two kinds of candidates,” Sanchez said at her campaign kick-off. “Those who want to be something and those who want to do something. I am running for Senate because I am a doer.”

If Sanchez prevails in her first statewide campaign, she’ll become the the first Latina ever elected to the U.S. Senate. Before she can make history, she’ll need to overcome demographic challenges with her key voting blocs: Southern Californians and Latinos. Both groups represent a large number of raw voters, who traditionally turn out in lower numbers than the statewide average.

No coronation for Kamala Harris

In January, Boxer announced that she would retire after four terms in the U.S. Senate. Although Harris quickly entered the race, other big-name Democrats seemed uninterested in challenging the state’s top law enforcement officer.

For months, it looked like Harris might simply take over the seat without a challenge from any of the next generation of Democratic leaders. In quick succession, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Treasurer John Chiang, billionaire climate-change activist Tom Steyer and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa each announced that they would forgo the race.

Kamala HarrisEarlier this week, Sanchez appeared to be latest Democrat to pass on the race. Sanchez’s team released a draft email announcing her campaign kick-off, but then quickly retracted the announcement, saying that she was still undecided.

That indecision caused the Los Angeles Times to complain that Harris’ coronation was bad for the democratic process.

“An unopposed candidacy is great for political parties, not for voters or democracy,” the Times wrote in its May 14 editorial. “A strong field of Democratic candidates is more likely to ensure that campaign debates cover topics Democrats care about, and elicit authentic answers instead of canned responses. Without such a vigorous vetting, Harris would be able to script her communication so carefully as to be meaningless.”

Harris campaign jabs “culture of dysfunction”

Harris’ campaign wasted no time in welcoming Sanchez to the race with a subtle jab at Washington’s “culture of dysfunction.”

“The attorney general looks forward to a lively discussion about who is best equipped to help change the culture of dysfunction in Washington, D.C. and make a difference in the lives of Californians,” said Nathan Click, spokesman for the Harris campaign.

In addition to hailing from opposite ends of the state, the two Democratic women bring remarkably different styles, backgrounds and personalities to the campaign. The differences were evidenced in their campaign kick-offs: Sanchez with a traditional campaign rally, Harris an email announcement.

They’ve also risen through the political ranks in different ways. Sanchez fought her way into elected office after losing a 1994 campaign for Anaheim City Council. Harris benefited from an early political appointment by her longtime benefactor, former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

Sanchez’s greatest asset might be her blunt, straight-talking demeanor, which could further expose Harris as a controlled and calculating politician. With a more direct style and off-the-cuff remarks that occasionally get her into trouble, Sanchez has managed to create a cult following with her annual Christmas card. In contrast, even Harris’ backers have described her as “too cautious,” a trait that could hamper her in a contested statewide primary.

Possibility of all Democrat run-off

Some political analysts say that there’s a strong chance that both Harris and Sanchez could both make the November run-off. On the Republican side, Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of Carlsbad has raised just $12,030 – a fundraising haul more befitting of a city council race. The only other announced Republican candidate, former California Republican Party chairman Tom Del Beccaro, has never won elected office.

“Lots of Republicans will end up on the ballot which means that we could see two Dems if it is just the two of them,” said Matt Rexroad, one of the state’s top Republican political consultants and a Yolo County Supervisor.

Rexroad, who does not have a client in the U.S. Senate race, gives the edge to Harris.

“In the end I think Harris has an impressive team that has shown a tremendous amount of discipline while Sanchez has been a side show,” said Rexroad, a partner at Meridian Pacific, a Sacramento-based consulting firm. “Advantage Harris on name ID, resume, and institutional support. The one thing Sanchez has going for her is the Latino surname.”

Other Democratic candidates are still considering the race, including Rep. Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles and former Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera.

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