Dan Walters: High-speed rail, Golden Gate Bridge not the same

June 4, 2012 

Jerry Brown, not surprisingly, used a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge to tout his two bids for public works posterity -- a north-south bullet train and a tunnel for water to bypass the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

"Suck it in!" Brown said. "We got to build, we got to do it right. And this bridge I think really expresses that sense."

Just as the bridge proved to be an economic boon, Brown said, so would a bullet train and a tunnel to improve water supply reliability, adding that just as the Golden Gate Bridge "connects one side to the other and we are connected today to our past and to our future."

Nice try, governor. But a deeper comparison of his pet projects to the Golden Gate Bridge and the contemporaneous San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge reveals flaws in his logic.

Both of those Great Depression projects took much political courage and foresight to construct, as Brown correctly noted. Counties north of the entrance to San Francisco Bay floated bonds, to be repaid with bridge tolls, to finance the project. The state sold toll-backed bonds for the Bay Bridge.

The delta tunnel makes sense because it would, like the bridges, deal with a troublesome bottleneck. But it should be completely financed with the same kind of revenue bonds, serviced by water fees, that were used for earlier water projects. A general obligation bond now on the November ballot, which would pay for some of the tunnel's ancillary aspects and is laden with unjustified pork, should be cancelled or severely downsized.

The need for a bullet train, however, exists only in the minds of its ardent backers. While California has many local transportation problems, traveling between the state's northern and southern regions isn't one of them.

North-south highways are not congested, except in the immediate urban areas, and there is frequent, relatively inexpensive air service.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority's ridership and financial projections change with the seasons, yet it and Brown want the Legislature to appropriate billions of dollars to begin construction.

As noted above, California not only built the two bridges but financed them. But Brown wants the federal government to pony up nearly two-thirds of the bullet train's construction cost, whatever it might be.

Or, in reality, he wants a federal government that's running up monumental deficits to borrow even more for California.

If the train is as financially viable as Brown and the authority insist it is, why wouldn't they have the guts to do what the bridge-builders did -- float revenue bonds to be repaid from the train's supposed operating profits?

Public works projects make sense when they fill well documented needs. When they don't, they are just political ego trips.

Email: dwalters@sacbee.com.


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