The California Influencer Series

Should California’s next governor scrap high-speed rail?

More from the series

The California Influencers Series

Expand All

California Influencers this week answered this question: As Jerry Brown prepares to leave office, should the next governor continue work on the high-speed rail project he has championed – or should it be scrapped?

Madeleine Brand – Host, KCRW Radio Los Angeles

Idealistically, no. Who wouldn’t want a bullet train up and down the state? But realistically, yes. It just doesn’t seem feasible now, financially or politically.

Ashley Swearengin – President and CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation

The next governor needs to finish the job and deliver high speed rail to Californians as promised. Regardless of how you feel about the project today, the reality is that to move the same number of passengers every day in California on expanded freeways or airport runways would cost more than twice what it will cost to deliver high speed rail. And, it is the only mode of public transportation that makes money on its own operations. As the fastest growing region in California, it is unacceptable to continue to leave the Central Valley out of the state’s infrastructure and connectivity plans. The future of California will be determined by the Central Valley, and without major investment in water, education and transportation projects, like high speed rail, our region will be a drag on the rest of California when we have the potential to be a positive driving force.

Pete Wilson – California Governor (1991-1999)

High speed rail in California is a worthy concept, but in the case of the sad history of the California High Speed Rail project, it has been a costly failure. The actual expenses have vastly exceeded the estimated costs and we should not throw any more good money after bad. Think how much better our roads and highways would be if we spent that money for expanded interstate highways and critical street and bridge repair and expansion.

To put into perspective the cost of the California High Speed Rail project, California could purchase Southwest Airlines, with a market capitalization of approximately $33 billion dollars — one third the current rail cost estimate — and transport passengers through the state, country and internationally for far less than the eventual cost of the high speed rail project and the fares that will be necessary to support it.

Ron George – California Supreme Court Chief Justice (1996-2011)

The next governor and the Legislature should continue the current efforts to complete the high speed rail project. There are approximately 360 flights daily by commercial carriers between Bay Area and Southern California airports – the second busiest air corridor in the U.S. The rail system under construction would substantially reduce the pollution and consumption of fuel caused by air traffic, as well as the travel time for the 6 million people who travel by air between the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas each year, when the travel time to and from airports and security clearance are taken into account. The argument that this is “a train to nowhere” is transparently false; of necessity, construction of all segments of the rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco cannot proceed simultaneously. Almost 12 million passengers ride the rails between cities in the northeastern U.S. Several European and Asian countries have had a highly successful experience with high speed rail. California is a leader in so many areas, but here we are clearly behind the times.

Janet Napolitano – President, University of California

The high speed rail project, when complete, could be a marked improvement in California’s transportation infrastructure. It could take cars off our congested highways, transport people from places where there is affordable housing to their workplaces, and incite needed economic development in communities along the route. Nonetheless, the high speed rail project is a major capital investment. The next governor should conduct a soup-to-nuts project review to re-evaluate the project’s current projected costs and whether those costs are outweighed by the project’s intended benefits. Such a review would improve the public’s confidence in high speed rail. Questions such as the linkage between the stations on the rail route and local mass transit (the so-called ‘last mile’ question) could be addressed. Given the time lapse that has occurred since the initial phases of the project, a project review should cover whether the best available technology will be deployed. Finally, a project review should address the opportunity costs of the project. That is, where else could funds be used if they were not otherwise committed to high speed rail? In short, the next governor should take a deep breath, have a project review conducted, and then decide whether to proceed.

Maria Salinas, President & CEO, Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce

Unless and until voters decide otherwise, the next governor should continue to advance the high speed rail project. It is important that projects of this magnitude and investment not be subject to the changing winds of who occupies an elected office. As the fifth largest economy in the world with a population of nearly 40 million, it is not simply enough to maintain our existing infrastructure, California needs to be bold and visionary about the future.

Rob Stutzman – Founder and President, Stutzman Public Affairs

Given the exploding costs, it’s worth the next governor considering if billions for a fixed rail system makes sense in the 21st Century where the future looks like it is automated vehicles and hyper loops. Jerry was a futurist in his first term but not so much in his second.

Andrea Ambriz – Chief of Staff, Service Employees International Union Local 2015

Our continued reliance upon our existing modes of transportation is just not sustainable. California roads just can’t keep up with the effects of such transit uses, and moreover, our neighborhoods can’t continue to keep up with the devastating consequences of pollution caused by them either. (And as we all know, low-income and communities of color are most disproportionately negatively impacted.) Yes, the process to move the high-speed rail system forward has been riddled with challenges and delays and increasing costs, however, we can’t afford to abandon a proposal to create a critical solution which our state needs. Is the current process perfect? No. But let’s not let perfection be the enemy of the good here. We owe it to our state to maximize the investments already made into this effort to produce results that are economically feasible.

Dorothy Rothrock – President, California Manufacturers and Technology Association

High speed rail is now a piece of a broader statewide rail modernization program. The entire business plan and funding sources should be reviewed and updated as necessary, as the role of high speed rail in that plan may be different than it was originally conceived in the 1990’s. State leaders should be honest with voters about the value of continued funding or make the hard decision to abandon elements of the project that no longer make sense.

Cesar Diaz – Political and Legislative Director, State Building and Construction Trades Council

In order to meet its environmental and housing goals, California needs to fund as many public transit projects as possible, especially high-speed rail. Building affordable housing projects in the Central Valley is a key component of the state’s strategy to provide housing relief for working families. The investment will transform the Central Valley, generating economic development and creating diversity in job growth for local residents while the high-speed rail system transports workers back and forth to the Bay Area in an efficient and environmentally safe manner. In short, high-speed rail helps solve three of the state’s most pressing issues: the need for affordable housing, climate change and the lack of good job opportunities for Central Valley residents.

Jon Coupal – President, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association

California’s High Speed Rail project should be abandoned as soon as possible. It has now devolved into an embarrassing international joke.

None of the promises that came with Proposition 1A (2008) that approved the initial funding via a general obligation bond have been kept. There is no private sector money. There is no additional federal money. The cost overruns are massive, and the promised travel times and projected fare box revenues cannot possibly be achieved.

Many who originally supported the High Speed Rail project have had a dramatic change of heart. Former state Sen. and High Speed Rail Authority Chairman Quentin Kopp is now vigorously opposed, noting that “this is not what the voters approved.” Likewise, the San Jose Mercury News recently ran an editorial entitled, “Stop the California Bullet Train in its Tracks.”

Prior to the approval of the bonds, the Reason Foundation and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation published a study showing the project was never even viable from its inception. Although the bond barely passed, we now know why it did. The title and summary were so inaccurate that they were deemed a violation of the Political Reform Act in a published Court of Appeal decision. HJTA v. Bowen. But the damage was done, and now HSR is a heavy albatross around the necks of California taxpayers.

Two aspects of HSR are particularly embarrassing. First, the project was justified in large part as a response to climate change. Indeed, that justification is why the project is currently being funded almost exclusively by “cap-and-trade” funds that are generated by the sale of “carbon credits,” a hidden tax on energy. But ironically, even the Legislative Analyst notes that the project is a net greenhouse gas producer. Even if the project were someday completed and performed as originally promised – a pipe-dream in itself – it would never reduce GHG emissions to a point where it would make up for the GHG emissions that will have been spewed into the atmosphere during construction.

Second, it is now apparent that HSR’s defenders can’t even identify what kind of project it is supposed to be. Recent statements from the governor suggest that it will now serve as a commuter system between the Central Valley and the Bay Area. But high speed rail systems are designed to be intercity transportation modes which, of course, is how California’s HSR project was sold to voters. As a commuter line, it clearly doesn’t pencil out. What commuter – who moved out of the Bay Area for more affordable housing in the Central Valley – is going to be able to afford $100 per day for the HSR tickets? The only way HSR could serve as a commuter rail line would be with massive public subsidies, which voters were told would never happen.

The complete dysfunction of HSR is no longer in dispute. It is time to pull the plug.

Eloy Oakley – Chancellor, California Community Colleges

Gov. Jerry Brown has invested tremendous human and financial capital in high speed rail. Our modern state needs a more reliable and convenient rail transportation system. The next governor should place a priority on seeing that vision through – even if it means adjusting Gov. Brown’s original vision to more comprehensively meet the rail transportation needs of California.

Jim Boren – Executive Director, Fresno State’s Institute for Media and Public Trust

California needs to build the high-speed rail system, and it is stunning that a state that leads in so many areas has not been able to move this project ahead with more urgency. You’d think that a state that has gridlock on every one of its freeways would embrace high-speed rail. We can’t build enough freeways to solve our transportation problem. Unfortunately, high-speed rail has become a political football for those who believe that short-term political gain is more important than the future of the state’s transportation system. The cost of high-speed rail is substantially less than the taxpayer subsidies of air travel in the state. We need leaders who think boldly about a coordinated transportation system that includes high-speed rail.

Corey Matthews – Vice President, LeadersUp

The high speed rail project has been in the works for more than 20 years, and I still cannot see it as anything more than a pet project. It costs too much money to build and I’m not sure if the amount of time and resources spent will be worth the return. What is the return on it anyway? We have other, more important projects, that should be top of mind for any “extra” money we have to spend out of our budget surplus: education, infrastructure, housing and even investments into our higher education system are more convincing priorities. The high speed rail will certainly give us bragging rights but with our global economy, world-renowned status as the tech capital, diversity, and massive state population, I think we can afford to let this one go… finally. At this point, how many people would even benefit from the project? Who would use it? And for what purpose? The questions outweigh the answers and our next governor should focus on the priorities that offer more tangible gains in the quality of life for everyday Californians. We can afford to bypass this project, but what we cannot afford is to keep our education system on life support or risk people’s lives with dilapidated roads and unsafe buildings. Scrap it. It’s time to move on.

Michele Siqueiros – President, Campaign for College Opportunity

Every time I sit in traffic all over California I imagine that we haven’t been as creative or courageous about finding a solution to get us out of our cars and into effective public transportation that works. As our population grows and urban centers become even more dense we clearly need a governor that is able to find solutions and resources to build the kind of transportation infrastructure that has us moving rather than fuming in traffic. High speed rail probably wouldn’t be my #1 priority unless it did both of these things.

Tom Campbell – Professor of Law and Professor of Economics, Chapman University

Scrap the train. The most recent estimate of cost to completion is between 77 and 100 billion dollars, over 15 more years. Thus, scrapping the train would save at least $5.13 billion a year. In addition, each year we would save $150 million in debt service and $50 million earmarked for the train from the cap-and-trade program. That total exceeds $5.3 billion – more than the $5.2 billion estimated to be lost if the gas tax increase is repealed under Prop. 6. So, if we scrapped the train, we’d have all the money for road repair that was coming from the gas tax, without a tax increase that would propel California into the number 2 spot for state gas taxes in the nation. The savings from stopping are likely to be even greater, given that the train is now estimated at almost twice its original cost, and at least four years behind schedule. With a track record like that, no one who has spent a day in Sacramento believes the train will now keep keep within its revised budget and timetable.

Bonnie Castillo – Executive Director, California Nurses Association

Food shortages, wildfires, increased droughts, a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040. Those are among the findings of the latest report by scientists convened by the United Nations on the urgency of climate action. We don’t have to wait until 2040 to see the impact of the climate crisis in California; the language on wildfires alone ought to get our attention.

Transportation accounts for nearly 40 percent of our state’s greenhouse gas emissions, largely from cars and trucks. Transit alternatives are also a health emergency. Passenger vehicles are a leading contributor to the air pollution which leads to asthma, bronchitis and other pulmonary problems, as well as cancer and other life-threatening conditions. Nationally, particulate matter reportedly leads to 30,000 premature deaths every year.

Yes, the project needs scrutiny and accountability for ensuring it is properly implemented, but that should not stop it. The cost of the rail project should be assessed in the context of the enormous financial burden of climate disasters and pollution-related health costs. We all have a responsibility to act to protect our families, our communities, and our planet. High speed rail is part of the answer.

Angie Wei – Chief of Staff, California Labor Federation

High speed rail continues to be a project that can take California into the future. We’ve got to build new forms of transportation and infrastructure to keep up with our population. High speed rail project creates good jobs in regions throughout our state that really need it.

Mike Madrid – Principal, Grassroots Lab

Scrap it.

Jessica Levinson – Professor of Law, Loyola Law School

Building and rebuilding our state’s infrastructure is one of the most important issues on the next governor’s plate. While the high-speed rail project has been slow and much more costly than anticipated, it could serve an important purpose of connecting the people in our state. California is about 800 miles long. That is about the same distance as it is from Connecticut to South Carolina. It is well-worth finding another way to connect our state. In addition, it is estimated that the high-speed rail will create economic growth, job growth, and produce sizable and specific economic benefits.

Steve Westly – Former California State Controller & Founder of the Westly Group

It should be put on hold. investing in education, stabilizing our pension funds and repairing our roads should be the current priorities.

Eric Bauman – Chair, California Democratic Party

High speed rail holds great potential for connecting disparate parts of our state without cars, buses or planes. This can be rapid transit that is relatively low cost and does not harm the environment or promote climate change. In the process it creates thousands of truly needed middle class jobs, especially in the Central Valley, to build, maintain and operate the system. If the next governor can obtain the funding, high speed rail will be a boon to people across our state, especially for those who do not have easy access to affordable air travel.

Abby Porth – Executive Director, San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council

Our next governor should continue work on the high speed rail project. It is good for our economy, critical for our environmental sustainability, necessary to preserve our agricultural land, and enable Californians to move around the state efficiently. With the decades of work and billions of dollars invested in this project, now is not the time to redouble our efforts to complete the project. It is the governor’s job to share with Californians a long-term vision for ensuring the health and sustainability of our state, and to sell to the public solutions that – while sometimes costly in the present tense – will be good for our future.

Renata Simril – President and CEO, LA84 Foundation

That is the $1 million question or should I say $77 billion dollar question and rising. The high speed rail project is a disaster. As the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year it is ‘a train to nowhere without a conductor’; exploding costs and longer completion times - original estimates $33 billion and completed in 2020, latest cost estimates have exploded to $77 billion with a current completion date of 2033; the new CEO is on medical leave after 8 months on the job; and everyday there seems to be a new lawsuit and increasing voter opposition. I think the next governor needs to take a long, hard look at this project in the context of other pressing state priorities. I’m all for good transportation but at what cost?

David Townsend – Founder, TCT Public Affairs

The current plans for High Speed Rail are exactly the program California needs as part of our transportation future. Providing fast and easy transit between high tech, high paying jobs in the Silicon Valley and affordable housing in the Central Valley boosts the economy and lifestyle of both areas. Virtually every important infrastructure project, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Brooklyn Bridge and the Interstate Highway faced intense opposition and lawsuits from individuals and groups that lacked vision and were motivated by selfish interests. Most of the civilized world has embraced and developed high speed rail. It would be economic folly to stop this important project of the future.

Carl Guardino – President and CEO, Silicon Valley Leadership Group

”The key question a new governor will need to ask about high-speed rail is about how to find the funding necessary for completion. The dollars need to match the deal, and high-speed rail is a really big deal that needs really big dollars. Regardless of where one stands (or sits) on high-speed rail, I do have one bone to pick with those who call it “The Train to Nowhere.” I often hear that expression from Central Valley elected officials, so I must ask in response . . . Where is “nowhere?” Are you insulting your own communities as “nowhere,” or are you seriously suggesting that Silicon Valley – the epicenter of innovation on earth - is “nowhere?”

Kristin Olsen – Stanislaus County Supervisor, Former California Assembly Republican Leader

There is no question that California is overdue for high speed rail, but I have serious concerns about the current project as it relates to cost overruns, lack of ability to draw private investment, staffing changes, a route where strong ridership is questionable at best, the change to lower speeds, and so on. If the next Governor wants to lower commute times, spur good-paying jobs, and get cars off the road to reduce both congestion and air pollution, investing in regional transit between the Central Valley and Bay Area, LA and San Diego, Inland Empire and Vegas or LA, etc... would seem to have a much greater return on investment for taxpayers, drivers, and air quality.

Jim Wunderman – President and CEO, Bay Area Council

High speed rail is a proven transportation technology in countries around the world. The next governor of California should absolutely champion the completion of what would be the first high speed rail system in the United States. The project is ambitious, expensive and extremely complex, as are all large infrastructure projects. But history has shown again and again that investing in these types of important projects pays off. The Golden Gate Bridge and BART were once viewed as folly. California’s population is expected to grow by almost 10 million over the next 30 years, putting a huge strain on our already congested and space-constrained highways and airports. High speed rail will add important transportation capacity, create stronger connections among key urban centers and help expand economic opportunity throughout the state. High speed rail also will help California meet its aggressive climate goals, providing a cleaner alternative to gas-powered vehicles.

Conan Nolan – Chief Political Reporter and Anchor of ‘News Conference’, KNBC-LA

Let’s vote. Again. Which apparently is the plan in 2020 say the folks behind the current Proposition 6, the repeal of the gasoline tax hike. They want to put California’s high speed rail plan on the 2020 ballot. While not passing judgment on that particular effort it seems inevitable that voters be asked to recommit to the bullet train, this time with more reasonable numbers. But what about the next governor offering the public an alternative? Ask voters if they want to continue with the current project or use whatever bond money is left (if legally possible) along with funding from the state’s cap and trade fund, for the rail system we already have? Currently the state pays for trains that connect cities throughout California. The problem isn’t that they aren’t “high speed” but that too often they are “no speed”. Commuter and Amtrak-California trains often don’t own their own tracks. Instead they rent from freight companies which give their trains priority when there is a conflict. So passengers wait for the cargo to pass. What if our ballot measure suggested taking HSR funding and using it to build a dedicated rail line for passenger traffic only? It would close the current “rail gap” between Bakersfield and Los Angeles. It would also connect our cities in a way that often trumps the need for speed: Reliable on-time performance. High speed connectivity no longer means you need to be in an office to be productive. The benefit of rail transit is that you can occupy your time with something other than driving. Reliable rail transportation gives us a fighting chance in solving the issue of housing affordability. Joe Matthews of Zocalo Public Square makes such an argument in his recent column about the success of the ACE train which links Stockton to San Jose. It might be wise if the next Governor asks the voters for guidance on this issue…while advising that rail travel in California isn’t just a legacy but is also our future.

Linda Ackerman – President, Marian Bergeson Excellence in Public Service Series

Scrap it!

Pursuing the high speed rail project, which is not a true high speed rail system, but a hybrid, had an estimated cost of $40 billion when the voters passed the 2008 $9 billion dollar bond. Gov. Brown was forced to put a shovel in the ground to secure $4 billion from the federal government or lose it. Cost estimates today are closer to $100 billion.

In 2014 the state legislators decided to appropriate a 25 percent share of the state’s annual cap and trade revenue to the train. The income from two years of this income returned about $900 million vs. the approximately $1.8 billion they expected. That appropriation has been extended through 2030. In addition, the new “business plan” for the train is researching new funding mechanisms. So it appears that this project is extremely underfunded.

By law the high speed rail must operate without taxpayer subsidy. The high speed trains in France, Germany and Italy are all heavily subsidized. China won’t reveal the economics behind their train, but they claim its cost is 22 cents per mile, France is 52 cents per mile, Germany is 46 cents per mile and Italy is 25 cents per mile. California’s train is expected to cost 20 cents per mile. If the European countries are subsidizing their systems, some of which cost less to build than ours, how are we going to pay to operate this system?

California’s transportation and water infrastructure is aging, we have a housing shortage and our population continues to grow. These are immediate needs where $100 billion would be better spent.

Catherine Lew – Principal and Co-Founder, Lew Edwards Group

California voters have spoken — they want this project and we should listen. Voters approved initial funding for high speed rail in 2008. While costs have grown, polling conducted this year by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute shows Golden State voters still want high speed rail — what traveler wouldn’t want the ability to get from SoCal to NorCal quickly on a 220-mph bullet train? Other countries have these public transit options, why not us? But for lack of political will, this project has the potential for transforming California’s economy, environment, and health. It provides union jobs, easier mobility to all regions in our state, and better transit options without clogging our freeways or polluting our air. There are any number of reasons to get this project done properly and quickly before costs increase even more. But Gavin Newsom’s proposal to complete the segment from San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area first — without touching the Southern California leg of the project for now — avoids the elephant in the room. Not addressing the most congested part of the route is akin to doing nothing at all. #courage

Related stories from Sacramento Bee