Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Jerry Brown has a way out of high-speed rail mess

Published: Friday, Aug. 5, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:16 pm

When Jerry Brown began his first stint as governor in 1975, he soon became embroiled in an intense controversy over setting aside lanes in Los Angeles of the extremely congested Santa Monica Freeway (Interstate 10) for carpools.

The public and political reaction to the "diamond lanes" was explosive and uniformly negative. Critics saw it as no less than an ideological assault on their automotive freedom. Legislators introduced anti-diamond lanes bills, and lawsuits were filed.

As the firestorm raged, Brown appointed Adriana Gianturco as the new state transportation director. She was immediately cast into the role of defender.

Brown himself vacillated, at first attempting to shift responsibility for the project to his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, and then embracing it as a gesture toward environmental stewardship.

"We have to try something because the old idea of cement plus the people's money ad infinitum is economically and socially impossible," Brown said at one point. "It's just a matter of choice."

Eventually, however, Brown retreated. When a federal judge declared that the Santa Monica diamond lanes were improperly implemented, the governor seized on the ruling as a way out of his dilemma.

This bit of history is offered because Brown is once again occupying the governorship, once again he has a big, high-concept transportation project that may be a debacle in the making, and once again he has a way out.

It's the high-speed rail project to link the northern and southern halves of the state. Voters have approved a bond issue for the project, which is slowly being consumed by engineering and other planning.

The High-Speed Rail Authority is eager to break ground next year on an initial section in the San Joaquin Valley.

It is already advertising some contracts for that section, even though its ridership projections are shaky, its finances are uncertain, its "business plan" has yet to emerge and there is stiffening opposition from those on the route.

Like diamond lanes, the bullet train is supposed to be a forward-thinking alternative to traditional auto travel – the sort of thing that Brown intrinsically likes. But its chances of success are fading rapidly, and it could easily become a huge financial and political albatross.

His way out is this: The new federal deficit-reduction deal requires cutbacks in spending, and Republicans in Congress – including those from the San Joaquin Valley – have made high-speed rail a prime target.

California's project is very dependent on many billions of federal dollars, so Brown could – and should – put the bullet train project on hold and block any construction until the financing picture clears up.

If the state builds that stretch of track and nothing else happens, the "train to nowhere" will haunt him forever.

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