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Walters, Dan

California has had no shortage of boondoggles – projects or programs that cost taxpayers oodles of money but never produced their promised benefits.

The boondoggle syndrome has been especially evident in countless state government “information technology” projects that soaked up hundreds of millions of dollars on the promise of greater efficiency but never worked.

The project to join the northern and southern halves of the state with a high-speed train system has all the earmarks of a boondoggle. While construction is underway on some track in the San Joaquin Valley, ending in an orchard near Fowler, the High-Speed Rail Authority acknowledges, more or less, that it has no firm source of funds to extend the line to a population center.

Senate Bill 1029, which passed the Senate in May and is now pending in the Assembly, is the latest incarnation of a rather shameful boondoggle that has cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars over the last three decades and has achieved exactly nothing – another train to nowhere.

For seven decades, a rail line connected the remote North Coast of California to the San Francisco Bay Area.

In its heyday, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, carried logs, lumber and passengers. But the track was extremely expensive to maintain because of the region’s unsettled geology and heavy winter rains, and improvements to Highway 101 eventually made it obsolete.

After decades of disuse and much lobbying by regional economic and political interests, the rail line was reactivated in 1989, at least on paper, with the Legislature’s creation of the North Coast Railroad Authority.

The NCRA actually ran a few trains for a few years until federal rail safety officials shut down service in the 1990s because of track deterioration. It then became a paper railroad that existed primarily to extract handouts from state and federal governments to finance its administrative and political superstructure.

Gov. Pete Wilson refused to provide additional state financing after the shutdown. But in 2000, after the NCRA’s political enablers cranked up a fundraising drive that generated about $60,000 for then-Gov. Gray Davis’ campaign treasury, Davis allocated $60 million in so-called “congestion relief” funds for the railroad.

Some of the $60 million was designated to repay half of a $12 million federal loan that the local congressman, Mike Thompson, had obtained for the NCRA. Thompson later arranged for the loan to be forgiven.

All of the taxpayer funding was based on assurances that the rail line could operate again, but with one exception in recent years – some very limited freight service in Sonoma County – it hasn’t. The authority’s officials told the California Transportation Commission last year that the agency had never been financially self-sufficient and has crushing debts.

This year, it proposed still another plan to regain solvency, including a tourist train around Humboldt Bay, but the transportation commission said it was too sketchy to warrant support and suggested that the Legislature revisit its 1989 decision to create the NCRA.

Senate Bill 1029, carried by Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, would do that, finally dissolving the NCRA, which should never have been created in the first place. It would transfer its property closest to San Francisco Bay to the Sonoma-Marin Rail Transit District for local transportation use and other rights-of-way to the Great Redwood Trail Agency for conversion into hiking trails.

Finally, therefore, one embarrassing boondoggle may be given a merciful death. But how about that bullet train to nowhere?

CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California's state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to Commentary.

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