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Will Brown’s Vision for High-Speed Rail in California Stay on Track?

March 1, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Gov. Jerry Brown wants California to build bullet trains. Correspondent Spencer Michels reports on whether a massive and costly high-speed rail project, now underway in a state flooded with budget cuts, will ever be completed or worth its cost.
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RAY SUAREZ: Next, a big battle in California over the future of high-speed rail and whether a huge project now under way will ever be worth the cost.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

The story was produced in association with KQED and the documentary “Train Wars.”

SPENCER MICHELS: This is what the future will look like if California Gov. Jerry Brown has his way: bullet trains speeding at 220 miles an hour between Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, and Sacramento.

The San Francisco-L.A. trip will take two-and-a-half-hours, which compares to an hour’s flight, plus airport time, or a five- or six-hour drive. Using this animation, the boosters of high-speed rail have touted their vision of fast trains for years, and convinced voters to okay the 800-mile-long system, a plan which is still on the books.

Supporters argue that fast trains will help unclog crowded freeways, will reduce air pollution and cut transportation costs, while creating thousands of construction and manufacturing jobs.

In his state of the state address this year, Gov. Brown spend a lot of time boosting rail.

GOV. JERRY BROWN, D-Calif.: Those who believe that California is in decline will naturally shrink back from such a strenuous undertaking. I understand that feeling, but I don’t share it, because I know this state and the spirit of the people who chose to live here.

SPENCER MICHELS: Convinced, among other things, that rail service in California is grossly inadequate, voters here in 2008 approved a bond issue to pay for high-speed rail. But a recent Field poll shows that two-thirds of those voters would like a chance to vote again, and most of them would vote no.

Meanwhile, some legislators from both parties who had originally supported high-speed rail are having second thoughts. In fact, one Republican state senator, Doug LaMalfa of rural Northern California, is trying to put the issue on the ballot again as a way of getting rid of a plan he considers a deception, because its projected costs have doubled since the vote, and now are estimated at around $100 billion.

SEN. DOUG LAMALFA, R-Calif., state senator: Our state budget is collapsing all around us here. We’re having to make drastic cuts of things we don’t want to have to. And yet they still hold onto this pipe dream of funding high-speed rail with money that isn’t coming from the private sector, or likely anymore from the federal government.

SPENCER MICHELS: As part of the stimulus package, the federal government gave California $3.5 billion, with the state having to raise the rest.

LaMalfa and others contend California is foolishly bucking a national trend. Republican governors in Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio have turned down federal stimulus money for rail projects approved by a Democratic Congress in 2009.

And President Obama, who strongly supported high-speed rail, failed to mention it in his recent State of the Union address. Still, his transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, came to California to meet with Gov. Brown recently. He assured the governor and legislators that the administration is as committed as ever.

SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTAION RAY LAHOOD: California is going to become the model for high-speed rail.

SPENCER MICHELS: There have been some reports that the Obama administration has backed off in its support.

RAY LAHOOD: We are 1000 percent committed to high-speed rail in America. This is the president’s vision. This is the president’s big view of the next generation of transportation, which is high-speed inner-city rail. There’s no backing off. We’re 1000 percent behind — that’s why I’m spending three days here.

SPENCER MICHELS: For his part, Brown has said he will bring the cost down, and help pay for high-speed rail through fees charged greenhouse gas producers, under the state’s cap-and-trade laws.

Construction has already begun on a $4 billion transit center in San Francisco, a Grand Central Station of the West. But the question of how to pay for the whole project is still unclear. The bond money, plus federal stimulus funds won’t be nearly enough.

In a move designed to revitalize the project and answer that question, Brown has appointed longtime adviser Dan Richard as chairman of the high-speed rail authority.

DAN RICHARD, California High-Speed Rail Authority: We anticipate that we will see very strong private sector involvement. The private sector, whether it’s individual companies or companies associated with countries like Japan, Korea and others, the private sector comes in and buys the right to operate the system, to collect the revenues, to put up the trains, and they make money from that.

SPENCER MICHELS: Richard says tickets will cost just 83 percent of low-cost airfare.

But Sen. LaMalfa doubts that and says private capital will not want to invest because the train won’t be very popular and will be too expensive.

SEN. DOUG LAMALFA: The cost to ride the rail will be much more, so people economically are not going to ride the rail. And then, for many commuters, it doesn’t work to ride the rail a short distance with all you have to do to get on and off it. They’re still going to use their automobiles.

SPENCER MICHELS: LaMalfa and others find it disturbing that the state says it will start building tracks in the center of the state, a thinly populated agricultural area with little need for fast trains.

SEN. DOUG LAMALFA: It would seem that if you’re going to start anywhere, you might start where there’s the high numbers of people that would utilize it, so maybe you would do it in an urban area.

DAN RICHARD: The reason that we’re starting in the Central Valley is because high-speed rail in California needs to connect our great cities. And to do that, we’re going to have very high-speed trains.

We’re going to test those trains at up to 250 miles an hour. They’re intended to run at 220. The only place we can do that is in the Central Valley. We can’t do it between San Francisco and San Jose, or Anaheim and Los Angeles.

SPENCER MICHELS: Most high-speed rail systems, experts say, build the link to the cities last.

In the Central Valley, the fast train has split the population. The farming community of Hanford, with 53,000 people, is halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It’s where tomato farmer Brad Johns has his house and ranch.

BRAD JOHNS, tomato farmer: This is dead zero on the train. We’re standing where the train tracks are going to be right now. I have been told, more or less, that that’s the angle it’s taking out across my property.

SPENCER MICHELS: Johns believes that, even though the tracks will run through his property, the benefits will outweigh the hassle.

BRAD JOHNS: I am going to have them pick up the house and relocate it to another location on the ranch, set it back down, drill the well, put in the septic, hook up the power. They were willing to pay for all that. And I’m out of pocket nothing.

SPENCER MICHELS: Johns even hopes to put up solar panels and sell power for the train.

BRAD JOHNS: I envision, when this train is finally built, that most of the folks here in town will get up on a Friday, decide that I would really like to go up to San Francisco for a bowl of clam chowder. And then they will decide, you know what, there’s a really nice show playing in Las Vegas. And they will get back on that same train and be in Las Vegas for dinner, get back on the train and be home by midnight to sleep in their own bed.

SPENCER MICHELS: But many in the Central Valley don’t agree. The house belonging to Ross and Phyllis Browning may be demolished by the project.

The Brownings fought the route in public hearings, even though they like the concept of high-speed rail.

ROSS BROWNING, resident of Hanford, Calif.: We bought this place with the idea that we were going to retire, spend the rest of our lives here. And I see that all going up in smoke.

SPENCER MICHELS: And Steve Gaspar, a dairy farmer, is convinced that the roar of a 200-mile-per hour train will terrorize his cows, and they won’t produce milk.

STEVE GASPAR, dairy farmer: As you can tell, the cows are calm creatures. And they don’t like to be bothered. It’s very peaceful and quiet out here.

SPENCER MICHELS: But advocates say the cows will adapt, just as they have in France where the high-speed train zooms past ranches regularly.

Still, with all the opposition in the state, in Sacramento and in Washington, the question remains, why keep pushing forward? Many observers say it’s Gov. Brown’s way of leaving a legacy, the way his father, Gov. Pat Brown, built the state’s water, highway and university systems.

SEN. DOUG LAMALFA: It’s hard to tell if it’s legacy building, or an environmental resume, or what have you, but it really doesn’t make a lot of sense.

SPENCER MICHELS: While local concerns, a state budget deficit, and the uncertainty of national support for high-speed rail may derail California’s plans, supporters have an answer.

They say that the Golden Gate Bridge, Hoover Dam and even the Transcontinental Railroad were built in hard times. So they’re sticking to their plan, which includes fast trains between San Francisco and L.A. in 20 years. If it doesn’t work out, this vision for the Grand Central Station of the West may end up, as the critics call it, a very expensive bus stop.