Oversight needed of Delta Tunnel, High Speed Rail

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG)  |  Commentary by Ken Cooley, CA Assemblyman, 8th District

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG) - Tucked away in a book in my Capitol office is a letter addressed to Kenneth William Cooley whose return address is stated simply as The White House.  A 4 cent stamp on the envelope shows a Mercury space capsule floating above a luminous Earth with the words “US Man in Space.” Its cancellation mark shows it was mailed on May 4th 1962 in Washington, D.C. I had written President John F. Kennedy at the age of seven, and received that response shortly after I turned eight.

As a child, I was inspired that President Kennedy dreamed big dreams and was bold-minded as an innovator. As an adult, I now know the ensuing US space program reflects his willingness to ask “what might be?”

In my adult life, both as a founder of the City of Rancho Cordova, with 10 years on its City Council and two terms as Mayor, and now as a State Assemblyman, I find another John Kennedy quote relevant almost every day.

Our responsibility,” Kennedy said, “is one of decision, for to govern is to choose.”

While I still agree that “to govern is to choose,” my Ken Cooley corollary is that we must always know the available choices.

To strengthen public confidence in government, we in government need to make good choices that use tax dollars wisely. Public stewardship is more than well-managed programs, however. Programs themselves must tackle the right priorities. It is the State Legislature’s job, as a co-equal branch of government, to conduct vigorous oversight and monitoring of state agencies so multi-million and billion dollar state projects don’t balloon out of control or get spent on the wrong goals.

Recent news makes me very pleased with my early opposition to two expensive projects which use dollars I believe would be put to better use to strengthen our schools, early childhood education and other critical social and physical infrastructure needs of our state.

These are the High Speed Rail (HSR/Bullet Train) project that I opposed when a key vote came up in 2013 to allocate one quarter of cap and trade dollars to it in a continuing appropriation and also the twin tunnels proposal. Concerning the tunnels, I believe they place at risk the waters of San Francisco Bay, which is the greatest estuary system on the west coast of North and South America. Teeming with millions of fish and all the waterfowl which use the Pacific Flyway depend on those waters, just as you and I, and our children and grandchildren do. 

Diverting scarce public dollars to the bullet train and the twin delta tunnels is a bad choice.

When passed by the voters in 2008 before the severity of the most recent recession became plain, the entire High Speed Rail project was promised to cost $40 billion. By 2016 it had climbed to $64 billion and now the latest cost estimate for the first segment has jumped nearly 80%, up to $10.6 billion.  “The worst-case scenario,” a financial consultant recently said “has happened.”  

In addition, because the project has yet to tackle reaching the more populous Bay Area and Los Angeles, the financial estimates will likely worsen.

Given our state’s challenges, I will continue my opposition to giving a big new blank check to the consistently over-budget bullet train. That would be putting good money after bad and will actually prevent the state’s ability to address other key needs. Like my original 2013 “NO vote” on the HSR continuing appropriation, I will not support major new funding now.  

The second state initiative fraught with problems and in swift need of additional oversight is the “Water Fix” project, which includes the construction of twin tunnels (40 feet in diameter and 35 miles long) underneath the Sacramento−San Joaquin River Delta and estuary.

Much of California’s water supply passes through the Delta’s “gateway” into the waters of San Francisco Bay. Decades of pumping water from this critical estuary to southern California has significantly contributed to its declining ecosystem, placing many species at risk of extinction.  Many environmentalists say the tunnels would bring even more harm.

Environmental issues aside, the project is on shaky ground economically. The estimated $17 billion project was slated to be funded by water agencies that would benefit from Delta sourced water supplies. However, not a single member of the federal water management Central Valley Project has agreed to support or contribute to WaterFix. Further, a 2017 federal audit said $50 million in taxpayer funds were used improperly to subsidize the San Joaquin Irrigation District for their part in helping plan WaterFix.

The administration reportedly is considering scaling the twin tunnels down to a single tunnel, a dramatic change that will require more dollars for redesign and environmental studies and I continue to oppose spending that money at this time.

It is still very much true, as John F. Kennedy stated, that to govern is to choose, and I believe we need to focus on choices that will bring better benefits to all California children, communities, and our future.