17 Nov Is a plan to use high-speed rail money for water projects too political to win?
These are are still images captured from a conceptual 3-D animation depicting how the California High Speed Train may interact with the existing environment throughout the state. (Photos courtesy California High-Speed Rail Authority/HAND-IN rcd Aug. 2010)
By Steve Scauzillo, San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Water or trains?
A ballot measure proposed by two Southern California Republicans asks voters to make that choice by siphoning more than $8 billion from the high-speed rail bond measure into surface and ground-water storage, making water the No. 1 priority in the state.
The Water Priorities Constitutional Amendment and New Surface Water and Groundwater Storage Facilities Bond Act was submitted last week to the state Attorney General’s Office by Vice Chair of the Board of Equalization George Runner and former state GOP leader State Sen. Bob Huff, R-San Dimas. The second part of the initiative would shift $2.7 billion from Proposition 1, a water bond act approved by voters in 2014 and negotiated by Huff and Gov. Jerry Brown.
While Runner and Huff promised a well-funded signature gathering campaign to qualify the measure for the November 2016 ballot, support for measure so far has been mixed.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority began building the Los Angeles to San Francisco bullet train this summer in Fresno and has spent about $2 billion of the $9.8 billion from the bond measure. The Authority, which needs the state funds and then some to complete a project whose price tag has ballooned to $68 billion, called Huff and Runner’s initiative a joke.
“Similar political stunts have been put forward in the past and failed; we expect this to be no different,” said Lisa Marie Alley, High-Speed Rail Authority spokeswoman.
While some Democrats in Congress and most Republicans in Sacramento want to defund the high-speed rail, most Democrats in Sacramento are supportive, as are many local transportation officials. The project has lost some support since voters approved the bonds by 52.7 percent to 47.3 percent seven years ago. A Public Policy Institute of California poll in March found California residents were evenly split on the project.
Huff says the skyrocketing price, objections from many communities in its path, coupled with the rise of a four-year water shortage calls for a new vote of the people.
“We have higher, more pressing infrastructure needs than this one. Plus, it has become too top-heavy and too expensive and doesn’t meet the needs we have today,” Huff said.
Many local water managers are looking for funding to build projects for water recycling, storm-water treatment and rain-water capture, which will help Southern California increase local water supplies in an era when supplies from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the Colorado River are scarce. While some say it may be impossible to receive funds from 2014’s Prop. 1 because it is marked for surface water mostly in Northern California, some were reluctant to support the initiative saying it is too political.
“It is not natural for us to go fight a turf war against people advocating for transportation projects,” said Adan Ortega, who represents the California Association of Mutual Water Companies.
Robert Kuhn, a board member of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District which covers eastern Los Angeles County’s foothill areas, likes the idea but for now will stay out of the political fray over high-speed rail.
“I don’t like pitting infrastructure against infrastructure,” he said, adding he would sign a petition to get it on the ballot, if only to create a dialogue on the state’s water needs.
Kenneth Manning, executive director of the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority and former CEO of the Chino Basin Watermaster, said the initiative could help fund local projects needed to trap storm water that rushes too fast to the ocean and is wasted. Re-directed high-speed rail funds could help fund additional spreading grounds in the San Fernando Valley and other parts of the region that replenish ground water supplies. He and others advocate low-cost projects, such as building storm-water filtration systems beneath playgrounds, ballfields and large parking lots.
“High-speed rail is not nearly a priority as needing a distribution system for water to meet the needs of the next century,” Manning said. When asked if killing high-speed rail was a problem, he answered: “That wouldn’t bother me.”
Huff said Gov. Brown wants to build more water storage infrastructure to help ease the drought but it’s not happening. “The water projects are not getting built quick enough. Let’s take high-speed rail and put it into more pressing needs.”
The measure does not create more debt and would not raise taxes, Huff said.