Capitol Alert

High-speed rail support hovers above majority, but possible detours loom

A full-scale mock-up of a high-speed train is displayed at the Capitol in Sacramento.
A full-scale mock-up of a high-speed train is displayed at the Capitol in Sacramento. AP

There’s been little positive buzz of late about California’s high-speed rail system.

Gov. Jerry Brown, among its biggest boosters, seldom brings up the ambitious and expensive infrastructure project. And the first declared candidate running to succeed Brown in 2018, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, said two years ago he favors redirecting voter-approved rail money toward other, more pressing undertakings.

Still, the train lurches ahead, with momentum from a recent court victory in which a Sacramento judge rejected claims that plans for the system violate state law.

Now, a new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California shows support for rail hovering just above 50 percent among adults (similar to findings since the question was first asked in March 2012). It’s not as popular among those most likely to vote this year, registering at 44 percent support.

Then the poll measured how the project, now estimated to cost $64 billion, would fare if it were less expensive. Support swelled to 66 percent with adults and 59 percent with likely voters. A third of adults and a quarter of likely voters said rail is very important to the future quality of life and economic vitality of California.

The PPIC survey is more relevant than one might assume. While neither the rail, nor its billions in previously approved bond money is on November’s ballot, the project will come before voters more indirectly this fall.

An initiative funded by a wealthy Stockton-area farmer and food processor would mandate large public-works projects financed by revenue bonds first be approved by voters. Officials are considering using cap and trade money for a loan, possibly including floating future revenue bonds.

Another proposed initiative, this one still gathering signatures, would pose a more direct threat. Introduced by Republicans Bob Huff and George Runner, current and former state senators, it would redirect about $8 billion in bond money from the state’s high-speed rail project to build water storage.

One, or both, of the proposals will likely force heightened discussion about the project.

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago