The headline caught my attention: “Bullet Train Back on U.S. Track.” The paragraph which follows might have been predicted by anyone familiar with politics in America’s most populous state: “The California High Speed Rail Authority has reversed its plans to buy foreign parts for its trains, saying in a letter to federal regulators that it was withdrawing a request for a waiver from the Buy America Act.”
Why the Authority rescinded its intention, disclosed a week earlier, that purchases of such items as rail cars, wheels, axles and other parts would be from foreign sources, is obvious. Opposition from the AFL-CIO, which represents the largest industrial unions in the nation, together with prominent lawmakers supported by union contributions, and who have spent their careers trying to force public agencies to buy goods made by American workers, cannot be ignored. The following statement by Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento) makes this clear: “It is vitally important that these parts are produced and manufactured in America, so that we continue to maintain job growth and economic development.”
If we now put politics aside and zero in on reality, we see that the Authority’s stated intention to assemble and operate a high speed train with specific equipment is a matter of no consequence. The reason for this is, despite the need to demonstrate economic accountability for the $64 billion project, there’s no sign the rail line will ever be constructed or placed into operation. With the necessary funds nowhere in sight, any declarations as to where these parts will be manufactured are meaningless.
A logical question follows: If the high speed rail project will never be built, why is there so much consternation over details concerning it? There’s an equally logical reason for this. Although no one will ever profit from the tens of billions of dollars projected but not available, there’s still a good bit of money floating around to be gleaned in some fashion. In addition to the $9.95 billion approved by the November 4, 2008, bond issue, there was $3.5 billion from a federal stimulus plan as well as $500 million per year from state carbon cap-and-trade revenue. From the standpoint of profitability, as long as favored parties continue to receive payments for planning, design, studies, environmental reports and the myriad of other boondoggles inherent when government funds flow, a train need never be built.
If history is a guide—and it usually is—the controversy will continue. As long as there are funds in the till to be passed around to politically connected contractors and construction unions, the efforts will continue. Only when all the money is gone will the project end.