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04/09/2012 by Chris Nelson

The week ahead: California grapples with its own blockbuster

The Lede

Photo courtesy of flickr user kenschneiderusaIt's a ride of epic proportions that has been a long time in the making, is racking up millions of dollars and promises to be around for years to come in several different incarnations.

It's true, The Hunger Games is a certified box office phenomenon, cruising past $300 million in domestic box office receipts in just 17 days, which is second only to Avatar among non-sequels.

But you wouldn't be remiss if you thought we were talking about California's now-infamous High Speed Rail (HSR) project. The plan received yet another revamp last week, and critics were quick to pounce. Doug LaMalfa of Fox & Hounds captured the head-scratching nicely:

Four years ago, the voters of California were promised a rail system that would connect Los Angeles to San Francisco by 2020 at the cost of $33 billion.  A month ago that same plan would now cost $100 billion with an estimated completion date of 2033.  This past week the plan was once again revised to $68 billion with an estimated completion date of 2028.

It's not that the demand for an actual high-speed rail isn't there. Voters approved a version of it via Proposition 1A in 2008. Traffic is only getting worse and people are finally tiring of being shackled to their cars. The prospect of spending untold billions on expanding freeways and airports isn't exactly a shiny alternative to the HSR, either.

Again, it comes down to budgeting. The HSR has suffered from something of a PR disaster by becoming inextricably linked to the word "boondoggle" by its harshest critics. Look no further than the existence of the site www.highspeedboondoggle.com.

Steven Greenhut of Bloomberg writes:

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has a serious public-relations hurdle: how to sell its proposed Los Angeles-to-San Francisco bullet train without the word “boondoggle” attached.

But the rail authority’s latest compromise plan to solve this problem -- with its focus on building the system in a “better, faster, cheaper” manner -- not only doesn’t fix the system’s fundamental flaws, it may plant the seeds of its destruction.

The ever-succinct Dan Walters cuts right to the heart of what must concern Californians at this juncture:

The supposed cost reduction is misleading. The earlier cost estimate was for a fully realized system – one that would carry passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in the 160 minutes specified in the voter-approved ballot measure.

The new "blended system" is a different animal – similar to a $78 billion alternative in last year's plan – that is unlikely to meet the time standard. As such, it could even be challenged legally.

Even the blended system, however, is highly dependent on federal funds. The plan assumes that the feds will kick in $41.9 billion, or nearly two-thirds of the cost – even though there's no money of that magnitude in the pipeline and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has declared war on the White House's bullet train plans.

Depending on funds from new cap-and-trade regulations, as Gov. Brown is touting, is equally as risky for the same reasons: none of it is guaranteed.

While The Hunger Games easily struck a chord as the right movie at the right time for audiences, but despite the many (to use Hollywood parlance) rewrites, the HSR project still isn't resonating with Californians. Like any blockbuster's release, timing is certainly everything.

When the state is staring down the barrell at a $9.2 billion budget deficeit with additional trigger cuts looming and an antiquated budgeting system in place, even the most well-intentioned of projects can appear frivilous and wrought with controversy.

Quick Hits

It was just announced that Palo Alto-based Facebook is acquiring photo-sharing sensation Instragram for $1 billion in cash and stock. Given that some 250 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every single day and Instagram is the most popular mobile photo sharing app, this move will only increase our obession with micro blogging everything.

California's dreams of having a meaningful and decisive Republican primary on June 5 have been shattered. Mitt Romney is the nominee. Let the genreral election games begin.

Speaking of the June primary, a new ballot will make its debut. Full info on it right here.

The SacBee's Kevin Yamamura writes that if every Californian paid every cent of every tax dollar owed, the state's deficeit would disappear. Have you filed your return yet?

Big Tobacco is upping the ante against Proposition 29, which would increase the tax on cigarettes by $1 a pack, inching us closer to New York City prices for smokes. Despte their war chest of $23.5 million to combat Prop 29, the latest public opinion polls show 68% of Californians in favor of the measure. Where do you stand?

Chris Nelson is the blog editor and a social media & content specialist at California Forward.

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