Jerry’s Fast Train: A Big Idea That Could Crash


Photo collage by David Trounstine for CalbuzzWith the California Federation of Teachers, the California Nurses Association, the Courage Campaign and civil rights lawyer Molly Munger all mucking up his plans for a ballot measure seeking a temporary tax hike (not to mention some disgruntled unions bitching about where he’s getting funding for his measure), you gotta wonder why Gov. Jerry Brown has also taken on high speed rail as a cause.

But he has. He’s even suggested that failure to build an 800-mile high-speed rail (HSR) line up the spine of California would reduce the state to the status of a third-world country.

It’s pretty clear he sees HSR as the Next Big Thing – akin to the interstate highway system, the Panama Canal, landing on the Moon and Lady Gaga’s meat dress. “Just like Lincoln built the transcontinental railroad during the Civil War … you’ve got to think big,” he said the other day on KCBS radio.

But tipping the scales at over $100 billion, with Republicans in Congress threatening to prevent federal funds from being used for the project at all (although, or maybe because, it’s a favorite of President Obama), and with the state auditor questioning the project’s financial feasibility, HSR looks to critics like a giant (hash) pipe dream.

As our old friend Steve Lopez at the LAT put it in a column the other day:

“When you can’t figure out how to pay for schools and colleges, road improvements, support for the elderly and disabled — not to mention a hundred other things — should you begin building a railroad no one is sure how to pay for? Especially when several recent reports, including one by the railroad authority’s own peer review group, suggest there’s a huge risk of financial disaster?”

So in addition to getting input from Calbuzz catroonist Tom Meyer, we asked our Calbuzz Advisory Board of Leading Authorities on Practically Everything (slogan: The Best Damn Political Panel on the Net) whether high speed rail is a winner or a loser for Brown, substantively and politically.

Surprisingly, our panelists were conflicted, and not exactly along party lines, although more Democrats than Republicans said HSR is a winner for Brown and among those who said it was a winner, more were Democrats than were Republicans.

There were also a few in our Consultanate who see both positives and negatives for Brown. “It cuts both ways,” said one Democratic panelist. “It makes him look visionary and forward-looking with a positive message regarding planning for the future, creating jobs and reducing pollution. But it also reminds voters of his Gov. Moonbeam reputation and he could lose points he’s built up being a fiscal conservative.”

“If the Republicans lose Congress and Obama is re-elected, it is a winner,” agreed a conservative Republican on the panel. “Otherwise, without federal money, it is a white elephant.  He has gotten carried away with the vision thing.”

Some suggested HSR will give opponents of Brown’s tax-hike measure further evidence to persuade voters that Brown is a tax-and-spend liberal who wants to get in your pocketbook and thrown your quarters into the gutter.

That’s not an argument that worries Brown’s advisers: they see a balanced budget, jobs and schools as much more pressing issues for voters than HSR. And even though they’ve just raised $2 million in five-and-a-half weeks, they’re much more concerned about whether other tax measures get funding and make the ballot. HSR is just commentary in the big political picture, in their thinking.


Here’s what the Calbuzz Consultanate had to say:

HSR is a winner

Republican: It is a winner politically, because the spending lobby is part of his core constituencies.  It is a loser substantively, because voters will reject the tax increases and the legislature and Governor will have lost one more year to get their budget in line with income.

Democrat: Here is a great example of California’s political process getting in the way of a good idea. The clock is ticking on the days of easily available, inexpensive air travel from San Francisco to LA. We’re going to need another option and high speed rail is it. There is always opposition to transit projects, in part because if you wait to build them till you need them, it’s too late. 

But the Rail Authority is a disaster, and the even the most ardent supporter of rail can’t look at what the authority has done or where the project now stands and say “this is how things should be.” The governor is right to want to build it, and right to reign in the Authority. In an interview in early 2010, Brown was answering questions about his father and he said “my father is known as a builder, and if I could do anything, I’d want to be known as a builder too.” This is his chance. Substantively, he’s right, but he might not get credit for it until well after his time in office has expired. From communication satellites to trains, a good indication that Brown is on the right track is if Republicans are making fun of him for it.

Democrat: High speed rail is a long term winner for Brown on both policy and politics.  High speed rail could be Brown’s most far-reaching and lasting accomplishment for the state. It’s the only thing on the table that could match the impact of the first Gov. Brown.  By the time it is built, California roads are likely to be even more congested, making high speed rail more needed and more popular.   

 In the short term, if Brown manages to take charge of high speed rail and get a positive message communicated, he could turn things around for this troubled project.  That translates to a big political win for him with labor, environmentalists and eventually the public.  A majority of California voters want more investment in infrastructure and more mass transit.  People have lost faith in the project in part because they’re only hearing negative news.  

The California high speed rail effort has suffered from a weak public relations effort, too much planning and too little action, and the incomprehensible decision to make the first link a train to nowhere.  Brown has a chance to rebuild public support by making some real changes at the agency, streamlining costs, and telling the positive story of how the project would create jobs and keep our economy moving.

Democrat: Brown inherited a mess: an understaffed agency trying to bite off more than it could chew, the Ogilvy PR fiasco, and provisions built into the ballot measure (like a peer review committee with inherent conflicts of interest) that limit flexibility in making high speed rail work. Add to that the shelling coming from DC simply because this is an Obama priority, along with the typical NIMBY crowds in the Bay Area and Central Valley. But give Brown credit for his attempts to reboot the project. He’s installed smart, no-nonsense commissioners (Dan Richard being the top gun), been creative with long term funding options (cap and trade revenue), and is insisting on a cheaper, more logical project. High Speed Rail fits perfectly into Brown’s longstanding reputation for looking beyond the next election. And though the project is taking its lumps — just as the California water project, I-5 construction, and other megaprojects have — it’s a smart move for the long haul.

Democrat: Winner – it is optimistic and future oriented – every project worth a damn was the object of contemporary derision. 

Democrat: Long term, high speed rail will be a reality.  Whether Jerry Brown gets the credit, is too early to tell.  It shows that he is still visionary and not willing to govern exclusively by poll results.

Republican: Ultimately it’s a winner, because it gives Brown a chance to do what California needs — kick us in the pants.We’ve been taking it on the chin — high unemployment, companies leaving, right-coasters smugly charting our demise.  All this bad-mouthing has taken a toll on the state psyche.  Instead of feeling cool, we’re shuffling around like losers.

This lets Brown remind us of our past glory and encourage us to start dreaming big dreams again.  Hell, we built the rocket that put a man on the moon, we can certainly build a high-speed train.  It’s a jobs creator and a good infrastructure investment.  But even more important, it’s a forward-looking vision for what California should be. It gives us something to achieve.

Of course, if we had built it 25 f**king years ago like we should have, we would have saved about $90 billion.

Democrat: Twenty-nine years from now Californians will realize Jerry Brown was ahead of his time and right again.  People will be either happy he succeeded in moving the project forward, or wondering why there isn’t high speed rail and asking who were the idiots who opposed it.

On the fence:

Democrat: The answer depends on whether you think it’s better politics to aim too low and make it than aim too high and miss it.  Governor Brown’s leadership here burnishes his reputation as an outside-the-budget-box visionary and puts him on the right side of business leaders, building trades, green jobs and the White House.

HSR is a Loser:

Republican: The state goes broke in a couple months and he wants to build a train to replace Southwest Airlines. I like Southwest. I can drink a beer and eat peanuts just as easily on Southwest as I can on a train, and it won’t raise my taxes. 

Democrat: I have no idea why Gov Brown has decided to take this on.  Of so many incredibly important things the Governor could be championing, this sure does NOT rise high, especially because like the water issue, the state is so divided.  Quentin Kopp’s original running of this is now being proven to be so corrupt and fraught with mismanagement it’s surprising to me Jerry would want to attach himself to its current iteration.

And if it were to go on the ballot for any type of reason, I believe the voters would kill it dead.  When teachers are being laid off and fire stations and libraries are being closed, voters see High Speed Rail as a luxury we just cannot afford right now. 

Democrat: This high speed rail deal has more problems than Newt Gingrich. It is a big distraction and a total waste of the Governor’s time and political capital.

Republican: This is a loser for the Governor. For his own sake, I wish he’d drop it.  It drains his political capital and really screws up his narrative for raising taxes.  Right or wrong, HSR is increasingly seen as a complete incompetent boondoggle.  So how do you ask voters to raise taxes when you’re building a wasteful train to nowhere?

Republican: It’s a dog with fleas.  How can he credibly argue that taxpayers should pay higher sales and income taxes while defending a multi-billion dollar waste of money.  With a millions behind this message on TV and Jon Coupal’s handsome mug, Brown would lose, in part, because of his own decision on HSR.millions behind this message on TV and Jon Coupal’s handsome mug, Brown would lose, in part,  because of his own decision on HSR.

Republican: Interesting — with Jerry Brown embracing HSR, he is opening himself up for criticism and gives opponents of his tax plan a powerful argument that Brown wants more taxes for more wasteful spending. On the other hand, it allows the governor to tilt at windmills and be the futurist in a way that defies political expediency. An analysis would suggest he is engaged in a net negative.

Democrat: Oh, I’m sure Brown has thought this out down to the last detail, like he does all of his grand ideas.  It’s clearly an attempt by Brown to burnish his legacy and overcome the “small is beautiful” mantra of his previous governorship by latching onto a big project.  Pick a big project, any project . . .

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There are 12 comments for this post

  1. avatar OC Progressive says:

    I look at High Speed Rail as a test of our political system now.

    Other modern industrial nations can build HSR, and it is a critical part of a complete transit system. Compared to the alternatives of widening freeways and expanding airports, it is a bargain.

  2. avatar smoker1 says:

    I would love to see HSR in California, because I see what an enormous benefit it has been to China. If you talk to the average Chinese person a trip on their HSR system is easy, inexpensive and expanding in economic and cultural ways that could not be foreseen. It would have been impossible to forecast some of the benefits.

    However, China has some things that we don’t have. First, they have lots of money. Second, the cost per mile of HSR is a fraction of our cost. Their longest HSR line of some 400 miles cost about $16 billion. Third, when the Chinese government needs some land, they just take it. We, fortunately, cannot do that. Finally, they have a population density that is perfect for HSR—we do not and will not.

    As tempting as HSR is, I would rather spend the $100 billion on our colleges and universities.

  3. avatar gery katona says:

    Frankly, I have not looked at the forecast passenger load for the train, but it could be a pretty good tourist attraction. California is already a tourist destination, this would just be another attraction for visitors. They could go from the San DIego Zoo to DisneyLand to San Fran by high speed rail. I know if I were a visitor, I would want to travel this way. Otherwise, I can’t imagine the cost can be justified.

  4. avatar tonyseton says:

    A train would be marvelous. And if it is forecast to be profitable, why can’t private investors foot the bill and garner most of the profit? The state can provide eminent domain and take some of the profit. Consider that the $100M projected cost of the project is what we will spend in Afghanistant in the next four days. It’s a tenth of what Obama plans to spend on the election this year. Surely a real leader can be creative enough to find the funds.

  5. avatar tegrat says:

    There is not a passenger train in the world that makes a profit, especially when you factor in the public subsidies that are completely necessary to make such things even possible. Even Southwest Airlines is a net loser if it had to pay for the huge public subsidies of the infrastructure that supports its ability to fly airplanes. There is simply no way to separate the public/private partnership that is needed to create modern infrastructure projects.
    We are so behind the rest of the world when it comes to HSR it is shameful. Even our low speed rail could use a lot of improvement, there is really no reason why all passenger trains should be 100 mph or more, it is simply a matter of very feasible and relatively cheap rail improvements.
    It is unfortunate that politics is interfering with sound engineering when it comes to this project, but that is the price we pay for living in a culture that places less and less value on science and more and more value on individualism.

  6. avatar FOIA says:

    The HRS has extreme problems. A projected ridership of seven times the amount of passengers that travel the route by air seems at best overly optimistic. The time to travel from LA to SF was a sales pitch based on PR not sound engineering but is required by the language of the bond. If the speed required by the proposition was capable of being lowered to 150 mph the costs would drop dramatically on construction and operation costs and boost both cost to passengers and allow freight usage on the tracks which cannot be done on HRS.

  7. avatar Ernie Konnyu says:

    My reviews on High Speed choo-choos is it would be fun if some sucker other than the taxpayer would pay for it. Who? Maybe George “The bad Hunkie” Soros would like to save the California environs. (It would be a better expenditure than feeding that law braking Occupy Wall Street etc. crowd.)

    If, however, the Cal taxpayers get stuck putting up the cash for it such an expenditure makes zero fiscal sense even if Obama forces the Congress to pay for a large chunk of it. Phueeee! What a fiscal pig!

    • avatar pjhackenflack says:

      Ernie, do you figure it was a waste to pour taxpayer money into the transcontinental railroad, the Erie Canal, the interstate highway system and airports?

  8. avatar Noozeyeguy says:

    That’s a false-equivalence argument, gents. Three of the four modes of transportation you list either supplanted far-less-efficient means, or were wholly revolutionary in their time. But HSR doesn’t do either. Taking the LA-SF route as an example, we already can get there faster (via air, our good friends at the TSA notwithstanding); with greater flexibility of route and destination (car or truck, via the interstate highway system); and with greater payload capacity (via conventional rail). The fourth (airports) are necessary in that aircraft (specifically, their pilots) tend to like to have somewhere to land… they’re funny that way.

    All that aside: Why LA-SF at all? Why not LA-Las Vegas? A colleague suggested that as an alternate route, and his logic makes sense to me. There’s a natural customer base, there’s a definite tourist-attraction element, the route is largely undeveloped, and some (if not all) of the construction costs could be borne by private enterprise (the casinos and resorts, who would directly profit from the traffic). Hell, put in a casino car, and unlock the door at Stateline… dollar slots at 200 mph.

  9. avatar Donald from Pasadena says:

    Honestly, this debate over HSR is a window to our future direction. Present projections tell us that California’s population will reach 50 million by 2025, which is really not all that far away, and we need to plan for that eventuality.

    We just can’t stand in place, in the presumption that our collective ability to throw an electoral temper tantrum a la Proposition 13 is going to somehow deter or mitigate the obviously real problems posed by a 50 million-strong California. Opponents to HSR have thus far not offered any rational alternative, other that vague references to building more highways and airports, which would be even more cost-prohibitive.

    With presently obvious exceptions in Oakland, Ontario and Long Beach, the airports in the major metropolitan areas are pretty much maxed out, particularly when you consider that runways, and not terminal space, are the true determinants of actual airport capacity.

    How are you going to build another runway at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank or John Wayne Orange County Airport in Santa Ana, which are both confined to finite spaces in the middle of urban areas? How are you going to convince the U.S. Marine Corps to give up their recruit training depot in San Diego, which they’ve called “hallowed ground,” in order to build a parallel runway at San Diego Int’l? Has anyone considered the enormous costs involved with the wholesale realignment of the present runways at LAX and SFO in order to build two additional runways at each airport?

    HSR is not meant to act as a replacement for the current intrastate transportation network already in place. Rather, it is both envisioned and desired as a much-needed supplement. Are the costs daunting? Absolutely. But I can guaratee you this: So is the cost of doing nothing, thricefold.

    There are ways to alleviate the current HSR projected costs. There is no way to mitigate the pending fallout from our doing nothing to plan responsibly for our state’s population growth.

    • avatar chrisfinnie says:

      All good arguments. If I may, I’ll add a few. Air travel is getting more expensive and less convenient. I don’t know about all of you, but it really makes me think twice about going anywhere. On the other hand, I loved the train from Paris to London. I loved visiting cities with good transit systems like Paris and London. It was so easy to get around! If I could, I’d take the train in a red-hot minute. And do use BART and other transit systems whenever I can. Unfortunately, our train routes are currently incredibly inconvenient. Last time I checked, it would have taken me 10 hours and I’d have spent half of that time on a bus! And our transit systems are fragmentary and limited. The ones in San Francisco and Los Angeles work fairly well and have good ridership as a consequence. But San Jose is far too limited to really be of any use. So hardly anybody rides it. The solution is to make these routes really useable. Make the connections work. Then they’d be viable.

      Second, have you checked the price of diesel lately? Many moons ago, an ex-husband of mine owned a diesel tractor. So I know what kind of mileage those things get, and it’s shockingly low. It didn’t matter so much back in the day because diesel fuel prices were a LOT lower than regular gasoline. They’re now considerably higher. And I simply can’t believe they’re going to go down. Ever. So everything we transport by truck is going to get more expensive. All the goods we export by truck are going to get more expensive. This puts a burden on businesses and limits their sales potential. And it also puts a burden on consumers because everything we buy will cost more.

      In short, we need to look forward as Donald says. Otherwise we’ll continue running behind.

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