Notebook

July 17, 2012 9:40 pm

Road to nowhere and Fresno

California is preparing for a $68bn high-speed rail link, writes Matthew Garrahan

There have been a lot of US public works projects that don’t go anywhere lately. First, Alaska had the “bridge to nowhere”, a $400m, widely ridiculed development that would have connected the town of Ketchikan with an island that was home to only 50 people. Heartily endorsed by Sarah Palin, Alaska’s former governor, it was eventually dropped amid great embarrassment.

More recently, Alaska unveiled plans for the “runway to nowhere” – a $64m runway on a tiny island six miles across the sea from the nearest village. And now California is preparing for what could be the daddy of them all, a $68bn high-speed rail link assailed as the “train to nowhere”.

High-speed rail has many supporters, both in the White House and among California Democrats and will eventually, it is hoped, connect San Francisco with Los Angeles, generating jobs with the kind of vast infrastructure commitment that helped drag America out of the Depression in the 1930s.

But when the Obama administration gave $3.3bn of stimulus money to the project in 2008, it stipulated that the first phase of the development take place in the California’s Central Valley region. So rather than Los Angeles and San Diego, or San Francisco and Sacramento, the first stretch of high-speed rail track laid in the US will connect the mighty metropolises of Bakersfield and Fresno. It would be like laying high-speed tracks in the UK but connecting Slough and Basingstoke.

This is not to underplay the charms of either Californian city. Fresno, which is known mainly for its raisins, actually shares many characteristics with Slough, which inspired Sir John Betjeman to write a poem imploring bombs to fall on it. The city has become a punchline in Hollywood movies and in a 2009 study of America’s dumbest cities by the Daily Beast website, Fresno came dead last. When, in 1986, CBS television producers were looking for a town to base a satire modelled on dramas such as Dynasty and Dallas, they chose Fresno (rather than oil, the mini-series’ warring families were vying for raisin crops).

A high-speed rail link might be just the thing to change its image. Or, then again, maybe not.

Banx cartoon

Romney’s false note

It’s been a tough week for Mitt Romney. In the spotlight about his tenure running Bain Capital and its record of outsourcing US jobs to other countries, he tried a counter offensive with a string of prime time news interviews.

They did little to stem a tide of negative headlines and were followed by the launch of a new campaign advertisement lampooning Barack Obama’s rendition of Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together. The only problem for the Romney campaign, which hoped the advertisement would turn into a viral internet sensation, is that it did not have the necessary clearance from BMG, the company that holds the rights to the song. After making a copyright claim to YouTube, the advert was pulled from the internet.

To make matters worse for the GOP candidate, the Obama campaign’s latest advertisement featuring Mr Romney attempting to sing “America the Beautiful” is still on YouTube.

How long will it be before Simon Cowell is brought in to adjudicate?

Zuckerberg move

The Facebook IPO may not have been the runaway success that Mark Zuckerberg may have wanted but that has not stopped the hoodie-wearing boy genius from moving on with his life.

First, he married his long-term girlfriend the day after the IPO. Now, news emerges that he has refinanced the mortgage on his $5.95m Palo Alto house. After presumably combing price comparison websites and visiting the manager of his high street bank, Mr Zuckerberg found a 30-year adjustable rate loan starting at 1.05 per cent. Not a bad deal, if you can get it. Never mind that Mr Zuckerberg, who has a fortune valued at more than $15bn, probably has enough change down the back of his sofa to buy the house outright.

Mortgage interest is tax deductible, which means he can use his payments to offset only an extremely small part of the whopping tax bill he will incur over the sale of his Facebook shares. Facebook investors who lost their shirts on the company’s disastrous first days of trading will no doubt be thrilled.

matthew.garrahan@ft.com

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