You have to hand it to Jerry Brown. He's not shrinking from taking a big risk on high-speed rail.
The governor used his State of the State speech Wednesday to give a full-throated endorsement of the project, even as cost estimates soar, polls suggest that the electorate has turned against it and many politicians look for ways to derail it.
Brown made clear that high-speed rail is a point of pride. He sees it as part of his legacy. It also fits with his view that California, for all its problems, is on the ascent.
There is, of course, an element of politics. Organized labor, Brown's biggest source of support, led the campaign for the 2008 ballot measure that authorized a $9.8 billion high-speed rail bond. Labor leaders rightly believe that the project will generate huge numbers of construction jobs.
And Brown is right on the policy. In the decades to come, Californians will need alternatives to freeways and runways to get from here to there.
Brown offered a quick history lesson that helped place high-speed rail in context. Before it was constructed, the Central Valley water project was ridiculed as a "fantastic dream." A long-forgotten Berkeley mayor derided BART as a "billion-dollar potential fiasco."
"Those who believe that California is in decline will naturally shrink back from such a strenuous undertaking," the governor said. "I understand that feeling, but I don't share it, because I know this state and the spirit of the people who choose to live here."
No doubt, it was coincidence that Brown reaffirmed his support for high-speed rail on the same day that President Barack Obama, a rail supporter, announced he was shelving for now the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport Canadian oil to the United States.
Critics contend that California and the federal government cannot afford high-speed rail. Certainly, the $98 billion and counting price tag is enough to make anyone gag. But there are costs to fossil fuel.
Keystone supposedly will cost $13 billion, though projections invariably are optimistic. Sure, there will be safeguards against ruptures. But stuff happens. Ask BP, whose 2010 oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 people and cost more than $40 billion to clean up. Rail will be costly, but so is petroleum.
Dan Richard, Brown's newly appointed chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority, was in the gallery overlooking the Assembly chamber as Brown gave his speech.
Afterward, he called it a "great honor" to oversee a project that the governor sees as part of his legacy. It's also "a little scary," Richard said. Brown is his boss and friend, and is counting on him to salvage the project.
Richard is a veteran of many battles, not the least of which was the energy crisis in 2000 and 2001 when he was PG&E's head of governmental affairs. If he couldn't talk about something, he'd say so. In that and in other instances, he didn't play games. That counts for a lot.
Before getting the appointment, Richard was skeptical of the proposed initial route, the train to nowhere between Bakersfield and Chowchilla. But as he has studied it, he has become convinced that the system should begin in the Central Valley.
He's also astute and knows some money must be earmarked for a San Francisco-to-San Jose route, and for a Los Angeles-based route. That will help gain legislative support, restore popular support and ultimately attract private investors who will help fund the project.
Richard has a tough job. But support never was overwhelming. The vote approving the bond was 52.7 percent for it and 47.3 percent against, hardly a landslide.
Cost is a problem. But anyone who read the voter handbook in 2008 could have guessed that the $45 billion cost estimate was low.
In their argument against the measure, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, Republican Board of Equalization member George Runner and Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association President Jon Coupal offered what turned out to be an honest cost assessment.
"The whole project could cost $90 billion, the most expensive railroad in history," they wrote in the voter pamphlet. "No one really knows how much this will ultimately cost."
They're right. Management of the project has been terrible. Supporters lied about the cost. Consultants wasted money.
But taxpayers already subsidize transportation. We pay taxes for freeways every time we fill our gas tanks.
Brown could have killed the project, as many politicians and pundits urge. But instead, he wrapped himself around high-speed rail. If it fails, he will be tarnished. That's a risk. But high speed rail system would be quite a legacy. We have plenty of lanes on Highway 99. We really ought to try something new.