It seems a long time ago that as a state senator and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee I introduced a bill in 1992 to lay the foundation for high-speed rail service from San Francisco to Los Angeles and later to Sacramento and San Diego.

That bill was vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson. Eventually, in 1996, my bill establishing the California High-Speed Rail Authority was enacted. While I was chairman of the authority, a state general obligation bond for $9,950,000,000 was approved on Nov. 4, 2008, by taxpaying California voters, with specific provisions safeguarding taxpayer money and construction and operation of high-speed rail, including a ban on taxpayer subsidy for operating expenses, legislative oversight and electrified service like all other such systems since 1964 in Asia and Europe.

Bond proceeds were intended to stimulate private investment, federal appropriations and local investment. Sadly, my promises to voting taxpayers haven’t been kept since I left the authority governing board in 2009.

Project alterations, illegal authority and legislative acts and misrepresentations to Californians have occurred. Currently, the authority business plan provides for only one electrified track on a 119-mile route supposedly from Merced to Bakersfield, meaning trains can operate only in one direction at a time. The authority unlawfully has delegated to the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority (“JPA”) operation of such interim high-speed railroad service and not the authority itself. The authority CEO admits operating losses will be incurred. The San Joaquin JPA already operates Amtrak service in the Central Valley. The authority’s Northern California Regional Director refers in these pages (March 8) to “breaking ground in 2015 … .” That was a typical phony government event. In fact, not a single mile of track has been built! Billions have been spent for bridges, viaducts, altering a short portion of Highway 99 and eminent domain. The authority regional director and state Sen. Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, claim President Biden and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg will ensure more federal taxpayer funds for the project and that it’s “not the time to slow down … .” Law and facts belie such assertion in today’s divided Congress. Not one penny has been raised from private investors or local governments. There’s $5.5 billion of voter-approved general obligation bonds unsold. Caltrain electrification was blessed by the Legislature in 2018 with $775 million from the high-speed general obligation bond, which is illegal under Proposition 1A notwithstanding its worthiness, and is presently subject to a lawsuit by Kings County and other Californians, including me, pending in the California Court of Appeal and there’s no way passenger service by the authority won’t require a local, state or federal operating subsidy (How many people want to take high- speed rail from Merced to Bakersfield if legally-subsidized Amtrak service is available which stops in Madera, Fresno and Tulare?).

The authority plan constitutes a subterfuge and invites a suit under California law, prohibiting illegal use of public funds. The executive and legislative state government branches bear responsibility for unlawful transgression. Waste of taxpayer money must be stopped and the 2008 Proposition 1A promise to voters reinstated or remaining bond funds, after voter approval, should be divided between Caltrain for improvements, including electrification, and the Los Angeles Metrolink commuter service. Job creation hardly justifies illegal actions by bureaucrats, legislators and the governor. Probity and the 2008 dream must be restored.

Quentin L. Kopp is a retired San Mateo County judge, and a former state senator, former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and former chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

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(4) comments

edkahl

The HSR has been a colossal and corrupt failure based on numerous mis-representations starting with absurdly low cost estimates. No feasible plan or cost estimate has ever been advanced for tunneling through the earthquake-riddled Tehachapi Mountains to LA. No private company was willing to invest in the HSR as previously promised by promoters due to predicted low ridership which will require $100 plus millions of annual subsidies.

There is simply no pressing need for high speed transportation to Bakersfield through mostly vacant farm land. It'd be far better if we spent the $100 plus billions for the HSR on real needs like improving CA’s lowest rated schools in the country, affordable housing, infrastructure, water storage, etc. If you really want to build a railroad, try investing in high speed commuter rail that reduces 4 hour Bay Area daily commutes that would increase the quality of life in the Bay Area.

Ray Fowler

Thank you, Judge Kopp, for a detailed history of the high-speed rail project that is on track to squander tens of billions of dollars.

A dozen or so years ago, the idea of an efficient and environmentally better way to move Californians up and down the state had a lot of appeal. However, today it is an empty promise. As a result, if a state assembly member or state senator stood up in Sacramento and asked his or her colleagues... Do you think Californians want to continue wasting tax money on this project? If those same legislators answered the that question honestly, you would hear a resounding chorus of "No!"

Our state needs the funds being wasted on a form of unwanted and unnecessary transportation... those funds can be better used to recover from the pandemic, help the homeless, and truly improve our failing schools.

Terence Y

Mr. Kopp, thank you for your letter. I’m sure many of us knew this high-speed rail boondoggle would always turn out to be a giveaway to the unions. It is ironic your letter is printed today, the same day Ralph Vartabedian, a writer for the LA Times, writes of more delays for this ironically described bullet train. Mr. Vartabedian continues to do a great job chronicling the inevitable delays and wasteful spending on this train to nowhere. This time, Mr. Vartabedian provides a summary of the $1 billion in change orders that have not yet been reported, since the rail authority only discloses change orders that have been approved. BTW, a giant thank you to landowners who will not sell their land for this behemoth boondoggle.

tarzantom

I believe subterfuge defines a large part of how government operates. Synonyms include deception, fraud, double-dealing and trickery. It is not limited to high speed rail.

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