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Editor’s note: Michael Ackley’s columns may include satire and parody based on current events, and thus mix fact with fiction. He assumes informed readers will be able to tell which is which.
Japan has “bullet” trains. France has “bullet” trains. Why shouldn’t California have “bullet” trains?
Gov. Jerry Brown thinks the Golden State should have high-speed rail, at a current estimated cost of $68.4 billion for the entire system.
Never mind that California – facing a 2012 budget deficit of $16 billion – might have to cadge spare change just to cover legislators’ meal money. Never mind its current bonded indebtedness (somewhere north of $70 billion). Big ideas entail big risks. Full steam ahead! Let’s get started on the first segment, from … Merced to Bakersfield?
You have to lay the first rails somewhere, and the Merced/Bakersfield run has the great advantage of flatness. Boosters of this segment could proclaim, “Flat is where it’s at!” occupying, as it does, the compacted alluvium of the Great Central Valley.
In fact, this valley, stretching 450 miles from Redding in the North to Bakersfield in the South, offers ideal bullet train topography. It’s about the only part of the state that does. Nevertheless, some people – with unwarranted harshness – have deemed the Merced/Bakersfield route “the railroad to nowhere.”
Obviously, these “nowhere” people have spent too little time in Bakersfield, which boasts major thoroughfares named for country music giants Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. The city is even featured in an exhibit, running through 2013, at the Country Music Hall of Fame. It’s worth a visit, and on a 220 mile per hour train, you’d barely have time to warble Owens’ classic lyric, “I’ve got the huuuun-gries for your love,” on the transit from Merced.
But I digress. After sampling the “Bakersfield Sound,” you could hop a bus for the remaining 111 miles to Los Angeles. Getting to the railhead at Merced would be a breeze, too. It’s only a couple of hours’ drive from the San Francisco Bay Area or from the state capital. And Merced has a really nice Costco.
Let’s see: Two hours from the Bay Area to Merced, a half-hour train trip to Bakersfield, two hours by bus to Los Angeles. Let’s add at least a half hour waiting at the station or taking a taxi to your destination. To be fair, you wouldn’t go 220 mph the whole way. By the time you hit that speed, you’d have to be slowing down, so you’d average only about 110. That makes the trip an hour in duration. (And let’s not forget Fresno. “The Raisin Capital of the World” might insist that the train stop there, which would add more time.)
Anyway, you’d make it to Los Angeles in about six-and-a-half hours, versus seven by highway. Democrat legislators from the south state would battle for tickets rather than fly to the capital. Surely, the half-hour time saving would be worth $6 billion, the estimated cost for this so-called “railroad to nowhere.”
On the other hand, Republicans are what Gov. Brown calls “declinists.” (None of my dictionaries includes this word, so the governor gains credit for its coinage. We will include it in the Blind Partisan’s Dictionary thus: declinist: n. – 1. one who sees an institution as declining; 2. one who declines to help an institution decline, as through overspending.)
Chief among the declinists are retired Central Valley Rep. George Radanovich and state Sen. Doug LaMalfa. They’re circulating an initiative petition to ban state bond financing of high-speed rail. The project may be under way by the time citizens get to vote on the initiative, but Radanovich sees the measure as a deterrent.
“I think it’s going to put the fear of God in a lot of people that would be contracting … in fear those contracts would be in jeopardy,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
Even some Democrats, like state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, who chairs a committee on high-speed rail, teeter on the edge of declinism. (The word is growing like a fungus!)
Lowenthal told Times columnist George Skelton, “I’m real nervous about this. I’ve got to be convinced, and right now I’m not. We could lose our shirts on this.”
This is edgy stuff, coming from a lawmaker whose majority party has spent California into a (current) deficit of $16 billion.
But the governor takes a “damn the torpedoes” view of the cost. He has noted that naysayers believed the Panama Canal was an impossibility. Perhaps he has forgotten that before the United States took over that project, and with our grit and know-how got it built, the French, as Lowenthal might say, “lost their shirts.”