California Republicans Mistakenly Think Cap-And-Trade Extension Will Kill High Speed Rail

After I just wrote that the cap-and-trade extension to 2030 throws a lifeline to high speed rail in California, I read in today’s San Francisco Chronicle that California Republicans think they’ve potentially “de-railed” their hated train by helping to extend the program:

In extending California’s cap-and-trade system of controlling greenhouse-gas emissions through 2030, lawmakers approved a Republican plan this week to put a constitutional amendment before voters that seeks to give the minority party more say over how the program’s money is spent. One-fourth of that money — more than $1 billion so far and $500 million projected a year in the future — goes toward high-speed rail, a project that Republicans widely oppose.

With the proposed $64 billion train line between Los Angeles and San Francisco facing not only Republican opposition but financial struggles, any cut in funding from the cap-and-trade program could be fatal.

“This absolutely calls into question the viability of high-speed rail going forward,” said Assemblyman Marc Steinorth, R-Rancho Cucamonga (San Bernardino County), who voted to extend cap and trade in part because of the proposed constitutional amendment. “If the bullet train can’t prove its worth, (this amendment) provides a pathway to ending the funding for the boondoggle once and for all.”

The logic to me is basically ridiculous. First, the constitutional amendment has to be passed by the voters, which is a big “if.” Second, the amendment won’t even affect any dollars until 2024, at which point the vote in the legislature would have to take place.  And finally, even if a spending plan kills high speed rail, a simple majority vote of legislators after 2024 can change the spending priorities again.

The bottom line: the extension of cap-and-trade both shored up the existing cap-and-trade market through 2020 by increasing business confidence that the program is here to stay, and it gave the train line at least 4 additional years after 2020 to compete for funding under the program.

To be sure, there are still funding risks for high speed rail by relying on cap and trade. The legislature can try right away to tweak the funding formulas for how auction proceeds are spent, although this governor would likely veto any plan that diminishes funds for his priority project. And the amount of money from cap and trade may not be enough to finish the first section anyway from north of Bakersfield to San Jose.

Ultimately, the best bet for high speed rail is a new U.S. Congress that pays its share of federal dollars for the project, or a private investor to step up, which so far hasn’t happened. But the extension of cap and trade can only be seen as a positive at this point for high speed rail.


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