State Sen. Joe Simitian’s district office near Stanford’s campus is nestled among shops sporting excruciatingly cute names (A Street Bike Named Desire,Mom’s the Word maternity wear) intended to make the progressive gentry comfortable with upscale consumption by presenting it as whimsical. This community surely has its share of advanced thinkers who think trains are wonderful because they are not cars (rampant individualism; people going wherever and whenever they want, unsupervised).
Nevertheless, Simitian was one of just four Democratic state senators who recently voted — in vain — to derail plans that eventually may involve spending more than $100 billion on a 500-mile bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Simitian makes the obligatory genuflection: He favors high-speed rail “done right.” But having passed sixth-grade arithmetic, he has doubts. At one point, an estimate of 44 million riders a year — subsequently revised downward, substantially — assumed gasoline costing $40 a gallon.
Democracy, said H.L. Mencken, is the theory that people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard. In 2008, Californians passed an initiative authorizing $9.95 billion in bonds to build what they were told would be a $33 billion high-speed rail system. California, constantly lurching from one budget crisis to a worse one, could not nearly afford even that, and soon the price was re-estimated at about $100 billion. Not to worry, said Gov. Jerry Brown — the real price will be only $68.5 billion. Why? Partly because it will be less than bullet-like, not requiring extra-expensive roadbed.
Note Brown’s hilarious “.5.” Such is his precision that in May his projection of a $15.7 billion state budget deficit was 70 percent higher than his January estimate.