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Rube Goldberg Legal System Derails CA Bullet Train


California’s bullet train boondoggle was sucker punched yesterday, as a Sacramento Superior Court judge blocked $68 billion in bond funding. The same case saw a separate ruling allowing the state to spend $3.4 billion in federal cash for the project, while a second case (same judge) rejected the rail authority’s request to issue $8 billion in bonds that voters approved in 2008. The judge ruled the project would need to meet various mandates, compliances and environmental clearances before the funding stream can be allowed to flow.

The convoluted rulings are yet another sign that California’s toxic regulatory and legal environment makes any public works project slow, expensive and Pyrrhic:

“They’re stymied,” said Michael J. Brady, a Redwood City lawyer for the plaintiffs. Brady interpreted the ruling to mean that the project can’t move forward until the state identifies where its funding will come from and obtains environmental clearances on its proposed 290-mile “usable segment” from Merced to the San Fernando Valley.…

Rod Diridon, a former Santa Clara County supervisor and one-time high-speed rail board chairman, said the ruling will likely make the project more expensive and take longer to finish. But he insisted it won’t stop the project.

We’ve long argued that the train is an awful idea, but it looks like it’s starting to fail for all the wrong reasons. It would be good to see some common sense shape a consensus that the project’s exorbitant costs and marginal utility make it not worth the while. But no, the train is being derailed by red tape.

Opponents of the plan won’t find much to cheer in the rulings; they’ll just extend deadlines, complicate the process and drive costs up even higher. One of the reasons America can’t build much these days is that our legal and regulatory systems have gradually morphed into insane Rube Goldberg contraptions. It takes years and even decades, not to mention millions and billions in legal costs and project delay costs, to get anything significant done.

Our legal systems are increasingly so cumbersome, so slow and so expensive that they are a serious drag on productivity and growth. Just as teachers unions oppose reforming public schools that cost too much and do too little, professors and administrators fight to preserve a dysfunctional university system, and a multitude of vested interests drive up costs in the health system, the “legal system lobby” is more interested in the financial health and social power of its members than in the public good.

The next generation of Americans will have to take on the difficult but necessary task of overhauling some of the nation’s basic systems. They were good enough for the 20th century, but they aren’t working well enough now.

[Image of Rube Goldberg machine courtesy of Wikimedia]

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  • Andrew Allison

    Misfire. While it’s true that California’s regulatory and legal environment is toxic, the bullet train to nowhere train is not being delayed by it. What the Judge ruled is that, in it’s determination to proceed with this nonsensical boondoggle, the State broke the law regarding its authority to spend money.

  • Kavanna

    What exactly is going to force these beneficial changes? The pressure groups largely own the legislative process. The modern news media grew up in symbiosis with the imperial presidency. Even in its dotage, it can’t shake free of serving as semi-official shills and hacks for the Progressive National Savior.

  • Steve Sells

    The author misunderstands the ruling. It is not red tape that is causing this delay in the high-speed rail project. Proposition 1A, approved by California voters in 2008, included specific conditions to be met for the project to go forward, including the completion of a funding plan so that the project didn’t spend a lot of money with no assurance of completion. These protections were written into Proposition 1A but have been ignored by the High-Speed Rail Authority. The judge ruled that the rules in the proposition must be followed.

    • Corlyss

      Red tape is red tape, whether imposed by a court or a law or a referendum.

    • NormD

      Agree, The HSRA is now required to identify $28B of funding before proceeding. Good luck with that. This is not a speed bump, its a death blow. BTW, the HSRA assumes that the money beyond the $28B (total est cost is $68B) will come from the Feds, Sure….

    • SisyphusRolls

      Perhaps it is more accurate to say that HSR is being delayed by California’s bizarre environmental impact review process, but this particular ruling has nothing to do with those EIR rules, and everything to do with the initiative that authorized HSR in the first place.

      If it wasn’t for the EIR requirements and pushback on comments in them, HSR would probably have already displaced hundreds of businesses, farms, and residents in Fresno and Madera counties. But those delays allowed the bond validation and funding plan litigation (which is what the recent rulings were on) to be heard in time to put the brakes on HSR for the time being.

  • AnnSaltzafrazz

    I agree with Steve Sells. The court simply said that the referendum and the restrictions written into it were actually the law, and that the HSRA couldn’t ignore the law.

    Those restrictions were part of the reason the referendum passed in the first place. The people had spoken, and said that the construction couldn’t begin, that their money couldn’t be taken, until the funding for the project was all in place. Those were totally reasonable and smart restrictions on the issuing of the bonds. During the campaigning for the referendum, that point was stressed. People could reasonably assume that their money wouldn’t be wasted on an effort that might die, when not enough money could be found to continue construction.

    The HSRA was barreling ahead without funding, probably assuming that once construction had actually begun, they could say: Well, we’ve gotten this far, we might as well proceed–you wouldn’t want the work done so far to go to waste, would you?

    This was totally against the law, as the court has now ruled.

  • Fat_Man

    A little bird was sitting in a tree when an ice storm came along, knocked it to the ground and covered it with a layer of ice.

    The bird was lying on the ground freezing to death when a horse came along and dumped a huge load of steaming hot manure on it.

    The manure’s warmth melted the ice and caused the bird to revive. Feeling refreshed, the bird began to chirp.

    A passing cat heard the singing bird, pounced on it, and ate it.

    The moral of the story is: not everybody who dumps on you is your enemy, not everybody who gets you out of manure is your friend, and if you’re sitting in a manure pile, don’t sing.

  • mgoodfel

    I would worry more if competent, honest, sensible projects were getting killed. Not much evidence of that.

  • Corlyss

    Good news, whatever the reason.

    “The next generation of Americans will have to take on the difficult but necessary task of overhauling some of the nation’s basic systems. They were good enough for the 20th century, but they aren’t working well enough now.”

    Great hope there. In the legal system, three obvious candidates are tort reform and class action suits and proportional liability based on market share. I’m hopeful that with more women in the legal profession and a lot of computer aided routine legal work, the large judgments will go the way of the buggy whip and the profession will seem even less attractive than it already is.

  • LouAnnWatson

    here in florida, governor rick scott saved us from this fate by rejecting obama’s federal bribe to fund union only jobs at the eternal expense of florida taxpayers. thank you governor scott.

  • thorgodofthenorth

    The whole concept of HSR is a joke. The train has stops all along the way to pick up passengers, how in the world is it going to be high speed. This entire boondoggle was about giving Jim Costa (house of reps) an election victory in the Central Valley. The first stretch was from a small town to a smaller town within his district. BTW what does one do when they reach any terminal, rent a car and drive to the destination? Absolutely ridiculous.

  • diegochris

    I’m a fan, WRM, but this is so uninformed. The 2008 state law authorizing the bond funds specifically says you can’t start construction until you have funding and environmental reviews in place for a chunk of the system big enough to be viable if other funding dried up.

    The state needs $31 billion for the 300 mile initial operating segment. It has $6 billion. And it has only completed enviro reviews for 28 miles.

    Far from being cartoonish, the judge’s decisions are in keeping with state law and the goal of preventing a white elephant.

    WRM is so far off on this it makes me skeptical of some of his other possibly snap judgments.

  • megapotamus

    Whatever. Dead is dead. Forward.

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