The California Influencer Series

Time to hit the pause button on high-speed rail, some California leaders say

A full-scale mock-up of a high-speed train is displayed at the state Capitol in Sacramento in 2015.
A full-scale mock-up of a high-speed train is displayed at the state Capitol in Sacramento in 2015. AP file

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Jerry Brown did not invent the idea of a high-speed rail system to connect Northern and Southern California.

It was voted on by the state Legislature and ratified by voters years before he returned to the governor’s office in 2011. But for the last eight years, as cost estimates have skyrocketed and federal and private sector funding for the project has evaporated, Brown has become high-speed rail’s most persistent defender.

Only weeks away from the election to replace him, neither candidate for governor appears to share the depth of Brown’s commitment to a statewide rail system.

Fellow Democrat Gavin Newsom only talks about it under duress, and has indicated that he would adopt a much more gradual and incremental approach. Republican John Cox wants to scrap it altogether. Polling shows that public support has dropped considerably since Californians voted to authorize the project 10 years ago.

As a result of the changing circumstances, several of the California Influencers, a group of policy and political experts, advise Brown’s successor to proceed with caution.

“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,” said University of California President Janet Napolitano, who noted many of the project’s potential economic and quality-of-life advantages. “Such a review would improve the public’s confidence in high speed rail.

“In short, the next governor should take a deep breath, have a project review conducted, and then decide whether to proceed.” she said.

Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, also raised questions about the project’s financial requirements.

“The key question a new governor will need to ask about high-speed rail is about how to find the funding necessary for completion,” Guardino said. “The dollars need to match the deal, and high-speed rail is a really big deal that needs really big dollars.”

Many Influencers argued that the benefits of high-speed rail still outweighed those costs, and pointed to the state’s growing economic, environmental and infrastructure needs as reasons for moving forward.

“In order to meet its environmental and housing goals, California needs to fund as many public transit projects as possible, especially high-speed rail,” said Cesar Diaz, political and legislative director for the State Building and Construction Trades Council. “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.”

“The next governor needs to finish the job and deliver high speed rail to Californians as promised,” agreed former Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, now the president and CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation. “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.”

But others pushed back hard in opposition, making the case that even if a statewide rail system has potential value, it is currently unworkable. The money allocated for it could be used more effectively elsewhere, they said..

“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,” said former Gov. Pete Wilson. “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.”

“It should be put on hold,” agreed former State Controller Steve Westly. “Investing in education, stabilizing our pension funds and repairing our roads should be the current priorities.”

Other Influencers reiterated Napolitano’s point about the importance of voter confidence in the project, calling for the next governor to devote more time and effort to building public support and suggesting that voters would better understand the potential benefits if the case were made to them more persuasively.

“Our next governor should continue work on the high-speed rail project,” said Abby Porth, Executive Director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council. “(But) 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.”

“Let’s vote. Again. ... Ask voters if they want to continue with the current project,” said Conan Nolan, the chief political reporter for Los Angeles’ KNBC-TV. “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.”

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for The Sacramento Bee and McClatchy.

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