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Unions Virtually Alone in Love with California High-Speed Rail

Even close observers of the California High-Speed Rail Authority have struggled to track developments for the state’s planned bullet train. The debacle began in November 2008, when 52.7% of California voters approved Proposition 1A and triggered serious planning for what could be the most expensive construction project in human history. With that kind of money at stake, unions were obviously inspired to be part of this boondoggle.

Kings County Says No to CaHSRThe California High-Speed Rail Authority has become justly notorious for backroom deals, secretive administrative actions, and lack of transparency. But most Californians are at least vaguely aware that the project has been mismanaged and misrepresented.

Proposition 1A – placed on the ballot by the California State Legislature – authorized the State of California to borrow $9.95 billion to begin design and construction of a $45 billion complete high-speed rail system linking San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Sacramento. Including interest payments, the Proposition 1A commitment was estimated to be $19.4 billion to $23.2 billion for bonds to be paid back over 30 years. According to Proposition 1A, that money borrowed by the state was supposed to be supplemented with significant funding from the federal government, private investors, and municipal governments.

Proposition 1A also promised that the bullet train would be able to travel non-stop from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours, 40 minutes. Presumably many Californians who voted for it – including the 78.4% of San Francisco voters who approved it – imagined a fast train speeding between two world-class cities along the median of Interstate 5. They were wrong.

Here’s the current appalling status of California High-Speed Rail:

1. The California High-Speed Rail Authority has spent $587 million on consultants as of September 30, 2013. The California State Treasurer has sold at least $703 million worth of bonds (Buy America Bonds and perhaps others) for California High-Speed Rail as of May 13, 2013.

2. The estimated cost has been dramatically revised. Instead of being $45 billion for the entire system, it is now $68 billion just for the line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the high-speed rail will be “blended” with other commuter rail lines at the beginning and end of the route. One group has estimated that the entire system may exceed $200 billion if bond interest is included and the federal government does not provide additional grants.

3. The California State Treasurer cannot sell the Proposition 1A state bonds because a judge determined in November 2013 that the California High-Speed Rail Authority failed to comply with the law. While the California High-Speed Rail Authority has already obtained $2,942,000,000 from the federal government, possibly under false pretenses of a commitment to matching funds, the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives is intent on stopping further grants until the Authority gets its act together. No private investors have emerged – corporations want to GET money from the Authority through contracts, not give it money to be squandered. Cities in the San Joaquin Valley where the line will be built first have no money to invest in it – Fresno is nearly bankrupt.

4. Governor Jerry Brown desperately included $250 million in his 2014-15 budget for California High-Speed Rail to be obtained from “Cap and Trade” allowances paid by emitters of greenhouse gases as part of the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (Assembly Bill 32 or AB 32). But the project is expected to increase greenhouse gas emissions during four years of initial construction. The Authority claims it will earn the Cap and Trade funds because offsets from its tree planting program (as well as other activities such as “cleaner school buses and water pumps in Central Valley communities”) will allow it to produce “zero net emissions.”

5. With the “blended” plan, there are serious challenges to achieving the 2 hour 40 minute travel time required in law. An analysis claiming that the time can be met includes the train going over the Tehachapi mountain range (north of Los Angeles) at 150+ miles per hour. There is idle talk about digging a long tunnel for the bullet train through the seismically-active San Gabriel Mountains from Palmdale to Los Angeles, but this is probably to lull citizens of Santa Clarita into believing the rail won’t go through their town.

6. To the surprise and confusion of hipster high-speed rail supporters in San Francisco and Los Angeles, this bullet train will be a local, with stops at least in Merced, Fresno, Hanford or Visalia, Bakersfield, and Palmdale. In June 2013, the Authority awarded a $970 million contract (with provisions for an additional $55 million) to Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons (a joint venture) to design and build the first 29-miles of the high-speed rail between Madera and Fresno by February 2018. People are supposed to be able to ride the high-speed rail between Merced and Palmdale by 2022.

7. The California High-Speed Rail Authority erred by awarding the first design-build contract for a 29-mile stretch that includes 25 miles in one segment assigned for environmental review (Merced to Fresno) and four miles in another segment assigned for a different environmental review (Fresno to Bakersfield). While it received full environmental clearance for the 25-mile stretch, it has not received clearance for the 4-mile stretch. In December 2013, the federal Surface Transportation Board rejected a secretive request from the Authority for an exemption to environmental review. If it can’t get the federal exemption, the Authority’s design-build contract is in jeopardy.

8. Owners of 370 parcels that the California High-Speed Rail Authority needs for the first 29-mile stretch are apparently resisting or holding out on selling their property. At last report in mid-December, the Authority had allegedly closed escrow on five parcels. The Authority has now received authorization from the California Public Works Board to possess two parcels through eminent domain.

Based on these eight points alone, who would still be eager to proceed with this project besides Governor Jerry Brown, the corporations seeking contracts, and a scattering of citizens committed to various leftist causes related to urban planning and environmentalism? Unions.

Union supporters at California High-Speed Rail Congressional field hearing in Madera on May 31, 2013.

Union supporters at California High-Speed Rail Congressional field hearing in Madera on May 31, 2013.

In a backroom deal, without any public deliberation or vote, the board of the California High-Speed Rail Authority negotiated and executed a Project Labor Agreement (called a “Community Benefit Agreement”) with the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California. This agreement gives unions a monopoly on construction trade work and certain construction-related professional services.

In a January 16, 2013 email about the Project Labor Agreement to the former chairman of Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission, the Small Business Advocate of the California High Speed Rail Authority stated the following:

The Community Benefits Agreemeent (CBA) is an internal administrative document that was not necessarily intended to be circulated for public comment, however, that doesn’t mean you cannot provide me your input. The document was added to Construction Package #1 and Addendum 8 and I’ve attached it herein for your convenience. It includes regulatory compliance and is being reviewed by the Federal Rail (sic) Administration.

There is no evidence available to show that the Federal Railroad Administration approved the Project Labor Agreement, as required by law. But the final version of the agreement was signed in August 2013. No board member or administrator of the California High-Speed Rail Authority has commented in a public meeting about the agreement that will give unions control of most of the claimed 100,000 job-years of employment over a five-year period.

When State Senator Andy Vidak, with Congressman David Valadao, held a press conference critical of California High-Speed Rail on January 17, 2014 at the site of the eventually-to-be-demolished Fresno Rescue Mission, there were protesters: construction union leaders, lobbyists, public relations officials, and activists. The Fresno Bee reported this about the press conference:

In a news release prior to the announcement, Vidak indicated that his goal is to kill the bullet train. He tempered his in-person remarks, however, as he faced a crowd that included both high-speed rail critics from his home area in Kings County and a couple dozen representatives of labor unions who support the project…Rail supporters, some clad in hard hats and safety vests, booed Vidak as they wielded their own signs proclaiming high-speed rail as “good for the local economy, good for air quality and good for jobs.”

The Fresno Business Journal reported this about the press conference:

Dillon Savory, an advocate representing several local unions, commented after the event that high-speed rail would not only provide needed jobs, but it would help improve the Valley’s air, which has been heavily polluted this winter. Also, the cost of roadwork in the area is about double the cost of high-speed rail, making road construction less cost effective, Savory said. Savory criticized the anti-high-speed rail forced for trying to pit rail against water. He said the greater issue is putting people back to work with decent paying jobs. He said many union workers are only finding temporary work for about two weeks at a time. That is not putting food on the table, he said.

In 2013, Savory was the manager for the successful union-backed campaign to defeat a ballot measure (Measure G) supported by the Mayor of Fresno that would have allowed the city to outsource garbage collection. The political professionals are getting involved.

When the groundbreaking ceremony occurs for California High-Speed Rail, perhaps in an abandoned Madera County cornfield seized through eminent domain by the Authority, expect thousands of construction union workers to be bused in to block and neutralize any protesters. Governor Brown cannot suffer any more embarrassment over this boondoggle and debacle.

Bullet train path through Kings County farmland.

Bullet train path through Kings County farmland.

Sources

California Streets and Highway Code Section 2704.09 (implemented by California voters in November 2008 as Proposition 1A, as authorized by Assembly Bill 3034 (Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century)

Top-40 Donors to Campaign to Convince California Voters to Borrow $10 Billion to Start Building High-Speed Rail

Election Results by County: Proposition 1A (2008)

May 7, 2008 Senate Appropriations Committee legislative analysis for Assembly Bill 3034 (source of estimated costs of bonds, including interest payments)

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) High Speed Rail Awards

July 2012 – California’s High-Speed Rail Realities: Briefly Assessing the Project’s Construction Cost, Debt Prospects, and Funding (“The Realistic – No Additional Federal Funding scenario results in a total debt burden of $203 billion between 201 3 and 2058.”)

February 11, 2013 California High-Speed Rail Authority memo “Phase 1 Blended Travel Time”

A Preliminary Timeline of Activity Concerning What Will Be $9.95 Billion Borrowed through Proposition 1A Bond Sales for California High-Speed Rail

June 2013 – Contribution of the High-Speed Rail Program to Reducing California’s Greenhouse Gas Emission Levels (includes “plans to plant thousands of new trees across the Central Valley” and “cleaner school buses and water pumps in Central Valley communities”)

November 15, 2013 – Project Update Report to the California State Legislature (source of report that $587 million was spent on consultants)

November 25, 2013 California High Speed Rail Authority Bond Validation Lawsuit Ruling

November 25, 2013 – Tos Fukuda Kings County v California High-Speed Rail Prop 1A Part 1 Ruling

November 25, 2013 Tos Fukuda Kings County v California High-Speed Rail Prop 1A Part 2 Ruling

California High-Speed Rail – Fresno to Bakersfield Surface Transportation Board Exemption Letters

Project Labor Agreement (Community Benefits Agreement) for California High-Speed Rail – Addendum 8 in Bid Specifications – December 26, 2012

Project Labor Agreement (Community Benefits Agreement) for California High-Speed Rail – Final – August 13, 2013

February 27, 2013 Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission Chairman Wonders Why No Input Into California High-Speed Rail Authority Project Labor Agreement

Vidak Rails Against Bullet-Train Plan, Met by Bipartisan Crowd at Fresno EventFresno Bee – January 17, 2014

Vidak Calls for High-Speed Rail RevoteFresno Business Journal – January 17, 2014

California High-Speed Rail Scam

Past Articles in www.UnionWatch.org on Unions and California High-Speed Rail

Unions Creep Closer to Monopolizing California High-Speed Rail Construction – December 6, 2012

Watch Union Official’s Rude Antics at California High-Speed Rail Conference – January 15, 2013

Unions Await Fantastic Return on High-Speed Rail Political Investments – January 22, 2013

Exposing the Plot Behind Project Labor Agreement for California Bullet Train – April 30, 2013

Unions Defend California High-Speed Rail Project at Congressional Hearing – June 4, 2013

California Construction Unions Circumvent Public Scrutiny of Project Labor Agreements – September 17, 2013

 


Kevin Dayton is the President & CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC, and is the author of frequent postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at www.laborissuessolutions.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonPubPolicy.

 

Why California’s Businesses Are Forced to Collude With Public Sector Unions

I’ve received a number of calls from reporters over the last few weeks seeking my reaction to the fact that many tax hike bills have stalled in the Legislature. Despite the passage of Prop 30 giving California both the highest marginal income tax rate and the highest state sales tax rate in America, the sheer number of legislative proposals seeking even more revenue is staggering. Especially common are proposals to hit unpopular products or industries like cigarettes, soda, and oil extraction. But, for now, it appears that most of these tax hikes have lost traction.

When I was younger and more naïve, I would have shared the reporters’ assumption that the Legislature isn’t as enthusiastic to raise taxes as we originally feared once the Democrats achieved their super-majority status. But I’m older, wiser and far more cynical than I used to be and, more importantly, I’ve worked within two blocks of the Capitol and have observed what really motivates its inhabitants. In a word, it’s money. And the interests targeted by these bills have lots of it.

For example, not long ago soft drink manufacturers rushed to contribute millions to Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30 campaign to increase taxes on everyone else knowing that – as social pariahs who scheme to make children obese – they were being targeted by the tax-and-spend majority in the Legislature. Helping Brown and his legislative allies with a broad-based tax hike was putting a huge deposit in the “favor bank.”

And then there are the “evil” oil companies who are always a popular target for tax raisers. Surely, it is no coincidence that Occidental Petroleum was willing to put in a half-million dollars to help increase the tax burden on others. Most likely the company was seeking to deflect attention from itself and its plans for hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to increase oil production in California.

Sadly, this is how politics really works and it is light-years away from the idealized process that is taught in high school civics classes.

By introducing bills threatening taxes on interests that can afford to defend themselves, and then tabling the measures for reconsideration next year, members of the majority party have another 12 months to run their highly profitable shakedown racket, pressing politically vulnerable industries for campaign contributions.

These business interests get the message and they pay. Back in 2009, when then-Gov. Schwarzenegger was promoting his Proposition 1A, a $16 billion tax increase on regular folks, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce admitted that it was important to support the governor’s measure, because the alternative would likely be higher taxes on business.

Those who look at compliant business interests as the problem, would only be part right. California continues to be rated as one of the worst states in the nation to do business. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has released its annual economic rankings of all U.S. states, and California ranks 47th for economic outlook and CEO Magazine has rated California ranks 47th for economic outlook. California businesses are struggling under high taxes and suffocating regulations.

Interestingly, the reaction among various businesses and industries to the shakedowns is not uniform. Some are more than happy to play the game as a cost of doing business and, besides, it gets them into some pretty fancy parties. Other quietly seethe as they reluctantly write the checks because they know how wrong it is. Either way, businesses have adopted a “go along to get along” approach in a desperate effort to survive.

But in the end, to see who is really responsible for our pay-for-play culture in the state capitol, we voters must look in the mirror. As long as we continue to elect ego-driven, money-grasping politicians who put themselves above the interests of average Californians, we will continue to suffer under dysfunctional governance.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association  –  California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.