LaHood’s California High-Speed Rail Bluff

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is bluffing. Badly.

He came to California recently and issued a warning: the state legislature needs to approve high-speed rail in June, or else.

The unstated threat was that the federal government would take back $3.3 billion in federal funding that, along with state bond funds, are supposed to fund the beginning of construction in the Central Valley later this year. LaHood said he didn't want to detail the consequences of delay because he assumes the legislature will move quickly.

It's a ridiculous bluff, for a couple of reasons.

1. The administration has backed high-speed rail across the country, putting its prestige on the line, and has gotten nothing. Some states have refused or returned money. California is the only place with forward momentum. So the Obama administration isn't going to take money away simply because lawmakers take their time in evaluating a huge project with inadequate funding and an ever-shifting business plan. California is the whole ballgame for high-speed rail. Without us, the Obama folks have nothing.

2. The threat would have meaning if there were federal funding to pay for the whole project. There isn't. There's just this money -- and little prospect of more money. And the overall cost is estimated at $68 billion. If the feds were a credible prospect of additional federal funding, LaHood would have leverage. But he's got nothing.

This is still a very high-risk, high-cost project to build something good -- a high-speed rail link -- in the wrong place (in the Central Valley, when the best prospects for high-speed rail to be sustainable are in urban Southern California, particularly between LA and the Inland Empire and San Diego, the last of which isn't even part of phase 1 of this generation-long project).

So, Mr. Secretary, we call. Show us your hand if you like. But we already know you got nothing.

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Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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