California Grapples With High-Speed Rail Debate

BY Spencer Michels  March 1, 2012 at 7:06 PM EDT

There’s a big battle going on throughout the country, but especially in California, over whether to build very expensive high-speed rail systems. In these tough economic times, when the federal and the state governments don’t have enough money to support education, health and welfare programs, and when even the sacred military budget is about to be slashed, how can anyone justify sinking billions of public dollars into a fast train? That’s the question that Republicans, but others as well, are asking as they try to shoot down, or at least derail, the Obama administration’s push for high-speed rail.

But the answer they get from the Obama folks, and from California Gov. Jerry Brown, is that this is a good time to build a big, fast rail system. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood spent three days recently in California, talking up high speed rail. When I caught up with him at the state Capitol in Sacramento after a meeting with Brown, I asked if the administration was backing off its support. He was adamant: “California is going to become a model for the nation….

“We are a thousand percent committed to high speed rail in America. This is the president’s vision…There’s no backing off…that’s why I’m spending three days here.”

California voters decided in 2008 to go for high-speed rail, passing a $9 billion bond issue to pay for the beginnings of a system that would connect San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento with trains that would speed along at 220 miles an hour. The estimated cost of this system started out around $33 billion, but skyrocketed to somewhere near $100 billion today — a figure the governor says he can reduce. The plan was to start laying rail in the rural Central Valley, and eventually connect the big cities.

But times have changed for the worse. The price tag and the economy — plus plans to start in the center of the state rather than in the cities — have soured many Californians on the whole project. A recent Field Poll shows that two-thirds of voters would like another chance to vote, and most of them would vote against it.

Still, Governor Brown is pushing ahead, confident that private enterprise will supply most of the money for the train, together with $3.5 billion the federal government has put up under the stimulus package. He says he’s aware that there are those who want to “shrink back from such a strenuous undertaking.” But, he continues, “If you believe that California will continue to grow, as I do, and that millions more people will be living in our state, this is a wise investment.”

He told fellow Democrats, some of them skeptical: “Spain can build it. China can build it. France can build it. Germany can build it. England can build it. Japan can build it. But oh, we can’t build it.” And he added: “No, we can build more airport runways, more freeways over the next 50 years. That’s twice as expensive. So I’m not saying it’s cheap; I’m just saying it’s cheaper than the alternative, and it’s a hell of a lot better.”

He and his recently appointed head of the High Speed Rail Authority like to point to other massive projects that were built during tough economic times, despite the cries of naysayers. Both the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal, Brown contends, were considered impractical and impossible, but they got built. In the United States, the transcontinental railroad was built during the Civil War, and the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam were constructed during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Amateur psychologists (and that includes most political observers) often say that Brown’s motivation is his legacy. His father, Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, was governor in the ’60s and today is remembered for building, or at least building up, California’s vast water system, its highways and its great universities. Now, the son, at 73, in his second go-round as governor, wants to leave something major behind, like his father did. That’s the theory, anyway, though administration spokesmen pooh-pooh it. They say high-speed rail will create jobs, reduce pollution and traffic congestion and make it easier and cheaper to get around the state.

Meanwhile, those who don’t buy that argument are at work trying to stop it in its tracks. One Republican state senator has introduced a bill to put the bond issue back on the ballot. He calls high-speed rail a pipe dream, and he’s skeptical that private interests will finance it.

Nevertheless, the state is going ahead, with work on a San Francisco rail terminal already underway, and construction in the Central Valley scheduled to start this fall. While nationally there appears to be flagging support for high-speed rail, with three states rejecting stimulus money, in California the debate has not been settled — not by a long shot. It’s a debate that’s easy to get going, since nearly everyone has an opinion on whether the fast, expensive train fits our needs and our resources.