Saunders: There’s time to stop the next big boondoggle

Debra Saunders
Creators Syndicate
Published Caption: None

A few things have happened since California voters approved $10 billion in bonds for a $45 billion California High-Speed Rail project — which promised to take passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours and 40 minutes — in 2008. Most recently, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny blocked the release of $8 billion in bonds because the California High-Speed Rail Authority “abused its discretion” by not complying with the law. Kenny found that the bullet train board failed to show how it expects to fund itself and lacks all the environmental clearances needed for the system’s initial 300-mile segment.

More importantly, in the past few months, voters have had a chance to see how quickly big government projects can go wrong.

Take the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement. Obama’s campaign operation was heralded for its ability to use the Internet to get out the vote and win elections. But the federal government cannot match the successes of the campaign operation.

And it’s not just that crashed. The White House anticipated a half-million enrollees in October to ensure that the scheme be actuarially viable; instead, the government signed on a fraction of the goal, 106,000 people.

To sell Obamacare, the president had promised Americans that if they liked their health plans, they could keep them. Instead, 5 million Americans will lose their individual policies at the end of the year.

Oh, and Obamacare is not affordable. In October, Obama read a letter from a single mother from Washington thanking him for winning her access to an affordable plan. In November, Jessica Sanford told reporters she was wrong — she did not qualify for subsidies — and she would not be able to afford to purchase insurance.

The obstructionist tactics of local politicians such as then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown helped delay the construction of the eastern span of the Bay Bridge; it took 24 years after the Loma Prieta earthquake to complete the 2.2-mile span — at four times the original projected cost.

The project was a parade of horrors. Months before the new span’s opening, engineers discovered cracks in 32 of 96 galvanized steel rods key to supporting the single-anchor suspension design.

Caltrans says it devised ways to compensate for the bad bolts, and commuters have little choice but to trust the folks who cracked the bolts.

So if public servants can’t do a 2.2-mile span with uncracked bolts while taking their time, do I trust Sacramento to build an 800-mile high-speed rail project that is affordable, safe and swift?

After a rancorous transit strike, Bay Area Rapid Transit management agreed to a contract that rewarded labor leaders for creating a nightmare commute for local workers. BART had contracted to pay its chief negotiator $399,000 — and still BART lost the negotiations.

And BART could lose the negotiations again. Its bargaining team accidentally signed off on an agreement that “inadvertently” included a paid family medical leave plan expected to cost an unexpected $44 million over four years.

“Mistakes happen in the business world and in life every day,” a BART fact sheet noted. And the public pays.

Mistakes do happen. When voters approved the bonds in 2008, the California High-Speed Rail Authority told voters the 800-mile span would cost about $45 billion. In 2011, the authority recalculated — and the price tag exceeded $100 billion. Now the main line is supposed to cost $68 billion.

After Kenny’s ruling, the authority’s chairman, Dan Richard, said in a statement, “Like all transformative projects, we understand that there will be many challenges that will be addressed as we go forward in building the nation’s first high-speed rail system.”

It’s ironic. Gov. Brown wants the bullet train to serve as his legacy. Now the same tactics — challenges — Brown used to delay construction of the eastern span are being used to jam his legacy. California’s can’t-do spirit is truly indomitable.

To win support from rail-resisting locals, the high-speed brain trust agreed to a “blended system” that would require the bullet train to share tracks with slower trains. Onetime supporter and former state lawmaker Quentin Kopp now opposes the project because he doesn’t see how a track-sharing bullet train could meet its high-speed promise.

If the new line isn’t high-speed, people won’t buy tickets; just as people won’t buy Obamacare policies if they’re not really affordable. And then the house of cards crumbles.

— Email Debra J. Saunders at To find out more about Debra J. Saunders and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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