Capitol Alert

Groundbreaking at Fresno for California high-speed rail

Governor Jerry Brown, center, signs a section of rail, flanked by his wife, Anne Gust Brown, center right, and Gina McCarthy, Administrator for the EPA, center left, and other dignitaries sign at the groundbreaking for High Speed Rail on Tuesday.
Governor Jerry Brown, center, signs a section of rail, flanked by his wife, Anne Gust Brown, center right, and Gina McCarthy, Administrator for the EPA, center left, and other dignitaries sign at the groundbreaking for High Speed Rail on Tuesday. The Fresno Bee

More than six years after Californians approved $9 billion in high-speed rail bonds and three decades after the state first pursued development of a bullet train, Gov. Jerry Brown offered a measure of progress Tuesday with a ceremonial groundbreaking.

Held at the site of a planned station in downtown Fresno, the event marked the improving prospects of a $68 billion rail program beset for years by litigation, political opposition and the uncertainty of future funding.

The system is proposed to connect the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas through the Central Valley by 2028, with passenger service beginning on that route the following year.

“Everything big runs into opposition,” Brown said, calling the project’s critics – some of them protesting at the fence line – “weak of spirit.”

“We’ve been talking about this 35 years, and they tell me we’ve still got 15 to go,” Brown said. “Well, I’m going to try to cut a few corners here and get it going.”

Asked to expand on his remark about cutting corners, Brown’s office said the Democratic governor was speaking figuratively.

While California’s project has been a long-standing source of controversy in Washington and Sacramento, nowhere more than in the Central Valley has its impact been so immediate – with years of quarreling over track routes and land acquisition on the farms and in small cities dotting the landscape. The rail authority began clearing parcels and demolishing buildings in the Valley last year.

While protesters jeered, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, one of few prominent Republicans to support the project, congratulated the train’s proponents and said, “Now let’s get it done.”

High-speed rail, Swearengin said, will make Fresno “the essential connecting point for northern and southern California.”

Rail officials viewed the groundbreaking, which closed streets in downtown Fresno and drew hundreds of invited guests, as an opportunity to suggest the inevitability of a project whose completion remains uncertain.

Just hours before the groundbreaking, Fresno’s KMJ News Talk Radio asked listeners, “Do you think the bullet train will ever actually be built?,” while local officials who opposed the project complained they were not invited to the groundbreaking and lined up to criticize it.

Among them was Fresno County Supervisor Andreas Borgeas, who said he worried about the cost of the project and impact on dislocated businesses.

Referring to the electorate’s 2008 vote to authorize rail bonds, he said on the radio station, “Are we getting what we signed up for?”

The event was significant for Brown, coming one day after he was sworn in for an unprecedented fourth term. Brown advocated for a form of high-speed rail when he was first governor, from 1975 to 1983.

“I truly do not understand what has taken so long,” Adriana Gianturco, California’s transportation director when Brown was governor before, said by telephone.

Even now, she said, “They still have a ways to go. It’s not as though this is all worked out.”

Brown, who has made the project a priority since returning to the Capitol in 2011, acknowledged that when he returned to office he “had some doubts about this project.” He said he was convinced to pursue it by his wife, Anne Gust Brown, a former Republican.

“The fact that she was a Republican gave me a lot of confidence, because I wasn’t quite sure where the hell we were going to get the rest of the money,” Brown said.

Then, he added, “But, don’t worry about it. We’re going to get it.”

Soon after taking office, Brown revised the estimated cost of the project upward, to nearly $100 billion – a measure of credibility, his administration said at the time – then backed off amid heavy opposition. Rail officials altered the design of the project, which is planned to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco through the Central Valley, to lower the cost to $68 billion, and lawmakers in 2012 authorized $5.8 billion to start construction, including $3.2 billion in federal aid.

Last year, Brown and the Legislature pledged 25 percent of future revenue from California’s carbon-reduction program to underwrite the project in future years, and after a series of legal setbacks, the project began prevailing in court. In recent months, the California Supreme Court declined to review a lawsuit challenging the issuance of bonds for construction of the rail line, and the U.S. Surface Transportation Board ruled several environmental challenges to the project were barred by federal law.

Yet the money California has so far allocated to construction is a fraction of what’s needed to finish the project, and the Republican-controlled Congress is all but certain not to offer any more.

The California project comes decades after countries in Europe and Asia began developing their own high-speed rail systems. And passenger traffic is still years off: The rail authority does not plan to run trains on its first operational segment, from Merced to Burbank, until 2022.

“It’s been on the plate for a very long time, but the history, at least here in this country, is such that we’ve never developed it,” said Andrew Goetz, a professor at the Intermodal Transportation Institute at University of Denver. “It is kind of a perplexing thing, because usually when it comes to transportation, the United States is pretty good about it – pretty good about developing the infrastructure quickly.”

Brown said he “didn’t know it was going to take this long” when he proposed a bullet train decades ago. Now 76, he added, “And it’s still going to take long. I mean, it’s kind of touch and go, am I going to make it?”

Rail officials labored to emphasize that work already is underway, taking dozens of reporters to the site of an old Del Monte plant demolished for the project. Dignitaries entered a lot across the street, where the groundbreaking ceremonies were held, passing under the outstretched arm of an excavator.

“What you’re going to start seeing is a lot more construction,” said Diana Gomez, the rail authority’s Central Valley regional director.

Joseph Szabo, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, said “California will now set the example for the nation with America’s first high-speed train.”

A smattering of protesters held up signs outside the event, and their heckling – “We don’t want your train,” they yelled, “Show us the money!” – could be heard throughout the ceremony.

“It’s not money well spent,” said Michele Moore, a conservative activist from Tulare. “We need money for our schools, we need money for our roads, we need money for our veterans – before this train.”

She added, “It’s a mismanagement of funds.”

On the other side of a fence separating protesters from the dignitaries, U.S. Rep. Jim Costa, the Fresno Democrat and former state senator who lobbied hard for the project, likened high-speed rail to construction of the transcontinental railroad and other major infrastructure efforts.

Despite controversies, he said, “We persevered, and we completed them.”

Of the rail project, Costa said, “We do it because history tells us the only way to improve our quality of life and to inspire future generations and to remain on the forefront of innovation and technology is fight for things that make a profound and lasting difference.”

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.

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