A sharp contrast in visions for America’s transportation future

Gov. Jerry Brown, fourth from right, and his wife Anne Gust, third from right, sign a rail Tuesday in Fresno.
Gov. Jerry Brown, fourth from right, and his wife Anne Gust, third from right, sign a rail Tuesday in Fresno. The Associated Press

In Washington on Tuesday, President Barack Obama promised to veto legislation by the Republican-controlled Congress approving the long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline that would pipe tar sands oil from Canada to Gulf state refineries.

Also on Tuesday, Gov. Jerry Brown led 1,200 dignitaries in Fresno by breaking ground on California’s much-delayed high-speed rail.

The groundbreaking, like the Washington political games, was thick with symbolism. But the developments on opposite sides of the nation provided starkly different visions for America’s transportation future. For all the delays, missteps and questions that remain about high-speed rail, California’s collective concept is far superior.

Voters approved a $9.9 billion bond act in 2008 to help fund high-speed rail. The first 29-mile leg between Madera and Fresno for which ground was broken on Tuesday is supposed to be completed by 2018. A second 65-mile leg will run from Fresno south. Ultimately, the rail will connect the Bay Area with Southern California.

In 2008, many Republicans supported the high-speed rail bond measure. Now that Obama and Brown support it, many Republican politicians have flipped. Several Republicans issued bellicose statements warning about the high-cost of high-speed rail and unacceptable construction delays.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield denounced it as a “public albatross” and warned Brown’s “push for this project will leave California with reduced government services and major disruptions to our communities.”

In an interview, Dan Richard, chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority, responded to criticism by McCarthy and the others by asking: “What’s your answer?”

The view of the Central Valley Republicans is disconnected from the region they represent. The U.S. census recently ranked Fresno as the second most impoverished metropolitan area in the nation. McCarthy’s hometown ranked fourth most impoverished, just ahead of Modesto.

The Central Valley perennially has some of the nation’s dirtiest air and highest rates of asthma. Clearly, more gas-powered automobiles and additional freeway lanes, themselves costly, are not the answer.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, is an exception, contending that the rail will give her city a much needed jolt by making Fresno “the essential connecting point for Northern and Southern California.”

Missteps that have dogged the project have been frustrating, and sometimes infuriating. But high-speed rail would be a step toward ending the nation’s dependence on oil, while construction of the Keystone XL would represent a costly and environmentally destructive step back.

We don’t oppose responsible oil exploration and drilling. So long as we all depend on petroleum, it is better to produce oil domestically and adhere to this nation’s environmental laws than to offshore our pollution.

There could come a time when another pipeline might be needed. But for now, supply is plentiful, and Canadian tar sands oil is especially foul. There also is a pragmatic argument against the pipeline: The oil to be transported would have little impact on U.S. gasoline prices.

As evidence mounts about the impact of climate change, this nation must find alternatives to oil. One such alternative began to take shape in Fresno on Tuesday. Yes, it was rife with symbolism. The rail won’t be carrying passengers for years. But it was a start, and a wise step into the future.

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