Last Week: March 3-9, 2013.

California High Speed Rail -- A boondoggle in search of a Pork Barrel 
There is a railroad boom going on right now in the San Joaquin Valley. At least there is a boom going on in the newspapers about railroads, fast and not so fast.
We know about booms here in the Valley. We had a great boom in real estate recently. It busted. But that was built on private money up front, but a public bailout in back.  The railroad boom is supposed to be a classic public works project, sort of like the kind of public works projects we had during the Great Depression. It is supposed to provide construction jobs and, according to the latest employment rules for this project, a third of the jobs are supposed to be reserved for various disadvantaged groups.
Some people don’t like the idea that these kinds of people would be at the head of the employment line, having been at the back of it so often – veterans, former foster children, single parents, high school dropouts, the homeless and those convicted of a crime.
But if you scratch the surface a little bit and get beyond the Republican Party bull, you’ll find that the real conflict is pretty basic: the prospective contractors to build the thing don’t want to hire union members and pay union wages.
Beyond this and that the first section is to be built between Borden and Corcoran, lies the land of speculation where the newspapers, mainly the McClatchy Company’s local outlets in Sacramento, Modesto, Merced and Fresno, roam, hoping to pump up real estate values, grow the cities and start another bubble. This produces more advertising, which is particularly profitable in monopoly markets,  and – well, it’s pretty easy to figure out – money starts flowing again, mostly in an upward direction as usual.
But, this is journalism that spells the names correctly, and when dealing with railroads that take some study, and getting all the flak quotes accurate. Everybody, it seems, wants high speed rail and more and faster Amtrak service in the Valley and this is a Good Thing and we have that many of those things to talk about. Every time the real estate sputters upward, it comes back down. There are no economic stories that don’t invite a fair amount of skepticism (for all the properly spelled names and accurate quotes), but the reports seem to be unanimous that there are funds, a few billion, for the first stage of a high speed railroad, and the railroad authority has decided to build it here. (Surely the people of California will want more than high speed rail service from Madera to Kings counties, even from Merced to Bakersfield will not slake their thirst for this indispensable service, regardless of its expense, regardless of strong criticism from other countries that have built high speed rail service.
High speed rail seems to be a type of transitional project. The approvals and public investment seems to occur just when an economic bubble is about to burst. This fantastic, progressive, 21st-century form of transportation, beginning with the astronomical prices of tickets for seats, assumes an elite business class that will survive the Great Recession, paying huge sums to leave the rest of us behind in Amtrak coaches pottering along at 125 mph by 2020. In the spirit of public bailouts that characterize the Great Real Estate Bust, there has never been any doubt that the California High Speed Rail Authority has been trying to leverage a $10 billion bond for planning and startup costs into compelling the state and federal governments to pay the $68 billion estimated cost of the first leg of the project in the Valley and whatever later sums are required. The state, particularly the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, several reasonable legislators and Republican ideologues, are resisting. The LAO reported in April 2012 that “funding for the project remains highly speculative …” Nothing has changed.
The high speed railroad has generated a balloon in political rhetoric that has shown signs since the beginning to have a life of its own independent of its subject. Because President Barak Obama is a strong promoter of high speed rail service, the Right is demanding a level of accountability for the project that it does not demand for the Mother of All Pork Barrels, highway projects, or California’s special bacon -- water projects. Republican leadership in the House has appointed Rep. Jeff Denham chairman of the subcommittee on railroads. He is a vocal opponent of the California high speed rail project, a later stage of which would pass through his district. Badlands is suggesting that if the Obama administration should offer a high speed rail Indian casino, tearing from county seat to county seat throughout Central and Southern California, Denham’s opposition would crap out.
California’s high speed rail project, better called the “high handed” rail project, seems to have steadily lost public support since the vote for the seed money and is now perceived as a boondoggle without a pork barrel, not the best position for a public works project. The state’s environmental leaders seem unable to make the environmental arguments for cleaner air and beneficial effect the project might have on global warming partly because Amtrak and other services like ACE are growing in California as rapidly as the railroad companies make room for them between freight trains; partly because of its obvious plutocratic bias; and partly because they are busy compromising on the California Environmental Quality Act, which is under attack by the Governor and the Legislature.