Gov. Jerry Brown still pushing high speed rail despite critics

A rendering of what a high-speed rail train would look like traversing California's desert.
A rendering of what a high-speed rail train would look like traversing California's desert.
California High Speed Rail Authority

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In his “State of the State” address last Wednesday, Governor Jerry Brown made it clear that he wants to break ground on California’s high-speed rail network this year. The fast-rising cost of the line’s Central Valley section has revved up opponents of the $98 billion project.

But the governor says the critics are - in his words - “declinists.” He says tough times shouldn’t stop lawmakers from investing in California’s future.

Now the question is: will they?

Governor Brown ended speculation about how much “skin” he would put in the game to defend high-speed rail when he called out the critics in his “State of the State” address by comparing them to past rail critics.

“The master plan for the interstate highway system in 1939 was derided as ‘New Deal jitterbug economics,’ ” Brown said. ”In 1966, then Mayor Johnson of Berkeley called BART (the Bay Area Rapid Transit) a “billion dollar potential fiasco.' Similarly, the Panama Canal was for years thought to be impractical — and Benjamin Disraeli himself said of the Suez Canal: “totally impossible.”

Brown paused before he delivered a kicker that drew applause: “Well, the critics were wrong then and they’re wrong now.”

'Make it a working system'

After the speech, Assemblywoman Diane Harkey (R-OC) shrugged off the governor’s criticism. She said she stands by the bill she introduced this year to halt bonds for high speed rail.

“Before we ‘think big,’ we need to have to some way of paying for it or making it actually a working system.” Harkey said.

Three years ago, California voters approved $9 billion in bonds to provide the seed money for a bullet train from Anaheim to San Francisco. The price of the project has since doubled to $98 billion.

High speed rail is feasible, Harkey said, with the help of reasonable people. She says she’d start by ditching the plan to build the first segment in the Central Valley. The former corporate banker says that route won’t have enough riders and won’t attract the private investors California needs to build the entire bullet train system.

“You need to bring in the private companies and say, ‘OK, if you’re going to do this, and you’re going to come in some time and we’re going to give this initial bit of seed capital, what do we need to do first?’" she said. "And the first thing you need to do is head to heavily populated areas.”

But the federal government has already put up $3.5 billion for the Central Valley track, and California has to match it with $2.7 billion or lose the money altogether.

Last month, a panel of rail transit experts advised state lawmakers not to issue the $2.7 billion in state bonds.

A hard sell

Dan Schnur, who served as former Governor Pete Wilson’s media spokesman, says Governor Brown can’t afford to back high speed rail much longer if he wants voters to back his tax hike initiative to balance the state budget.

“Before they vote for a tax increase they’re going to have to understand that the government prioritizes its spending," he said. "That’s schools; that’s public safety. High speed rail is probably a much harder sell.”

Last month, the Field Poll found that voters would now reject high speed rail bonds by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

“The State of California is about as likely to build high speed rail in the immediate future as they are to build a Mars space shuttle.” said Schnur, who now heads USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.

The rail line is a hard sell in a year when the Governor wants to reduce aid for developmentally disabled and elderly people, plus cut $1 billion from the CalWorks “welfare to work” program. In his “State of the State” address, Brown didn’t talk about welfare.

Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell (D-Culver City) said that he told her, “It isn’t on his radar.”

Mitchell says she’s supports the Governor's budget plan, up to a point.

“I completely back the ballot initiative to increase revenue into the State of California. I don’t, however, believe that we can balance the remaining deficit on the backs of the most vulnerable in the state of California: low-income working families, children and the disabled and the elderly.”

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) sees no contradiction in supporting budget cuts while selling more bonds for high speed rail.

“We have a simultaneous obligation to balance the budget and help build the economy," Steinberg said. "The high speed rail project certainly is an important part of that second obligation.”

It takes only a simple majority of lawmakers in both houses to pass the bond issue for the high-speed rail project’s first phase. If lawmakers vote for the bonds, Governor Brown says California’s High Speed Rail Authority can launch the project in the fall.

Meanwhile, State Auditor Elaine M. Howle joined the Legislative Analyst's Office and other outside agencies in calling high speed rail "increasingly risky."

The subtitle of their report "High Speed Rail Authority Follow Up" says that "although the Authority has addressed some of our prior concerns, its funding situation has become increasingly risky and the Authority's weak oversight persists."

"The Authority has not provided viable funding alternatives in the event that its planned funding does not materialize," the report issued continued.

According to the auditor, the High Speed Rail Authority has more than doubled previous cost estimates to over $100 billion - but has only secured about $12.5 billion to date. They also pointed out that "the Authority’s 2012 draft business plan still lacks key details about the program’s costs and revenues."

Her concerns echo those of outside auditor and non-partisan group the Legislative Analyst's Office.

This story has been updated.