The 2012 Battle Over High Speed Rail

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High speed rail, well established in places like China, may have to fight for its survival in California. (Getty Images)

It's hardly hyperbole to suggest that 2012 will be the make-or-break year for California's long standing plans to construct a high speed train system.

As supporters push forward on plans to break ground on construction by year's end, critics are demanding a second look and... perhaps... a scrapping of the project altogether. And both camps have the political firepower to wage an epic battle.

This morning, the latest jab from opponents: Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the Majority Whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, asked for a formal federal audit.

"Good stewardship of taxpayer dollars is a priority for us," McCarthy wrote in his letter (PDF) to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). "Allowing the money of hard-working Americans to be wasted on a questionable project with many unanswered questions would be an abdication of our responsibilities as elected officials of the American people."

The federal role in the financing of the project is crucial. Dollars from D.C. will be used in the first leg of construction, and additional federal funds must then help build out the initial phase of a train system from San Francisco to Anaheim.

McCarthy asked the GAO to examine seven issues, from ridership projections to the thorny issue of operating subsidies to costs vis-a-vis other systems of transportation and other high speed rail plans across the U.S.

(As a footnote, remember that McCarthy served as GOP leader in the Assembly when the $9.95 billion high speed rail bond was delayed from the 2006 ballot to November 2008. McCarthy voted for that proposal.)

The request for a GAO audit comes on the heels of a contentious Capitol Hill hearing last week about the project which, as we know, itself came on the heels of a GOP led effort in Congress to kill future funding, and new and heated debate about the rail authority's upwardly revised price tag of $98 billion for the SF-to-Anaheim corridor.

All of this seems to have created an environment of uncertainty at the state Capitol. It's unclear whether the prevailing political winds will continue to be behind the project or blow it off course and -- perhaps -- out of existence.

There's no doubt been praise for the newly constituted leadership of the California High Speed Rail Authority and its approach to planning and execution. But there's not yet unanimity on whether the Legislature should approve, as required, the first appropriations from 2008's Proposition 1A voter approved bonds.

It may have been voters who approved borrowing the money, but it's the the Legislature that now has to act to get the ball rolling.

While legislative Republicans seem resolute in their desire to stop the project, there have been some interesting laments about the project's challenges among some key Democrats. And given that the Prop 1A bond funds must eventually be paid back, with interest, out of the beleaguered state general fund, the discussion may come back to what the state can -- and can't -- afford. Governor Jerry Brown unveils his proposed budget on January 10, and critics of high speed rail may use the opportunity to remind everyone of the annual debt service the Prop 1A bonds will require once they've all been sold.

But the greatest weapon for rail advocates may be Brown himself. After all, not only did the governor remake the Authority's board with members of his own liking (including his top economic adviser), but he offered full-throated praise for the project on the release of its new business plan:

"California's high-speed rail project will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, linking California's population centers and avoiding the huge problems of massive airport and highway expansion. The High-Speed Rail Authority's business plan is solid and lays the foundation for a 21st century transportation system."

Even so, there are signs that the voters might be having a change of heart. 64% of voters in a December 6 Field Poll (PDF) support a new ballot measure on high speed rail, and 59% of those said they'd vote against the project.

Still, this is a debate that's just getting started. While critics call the project a boondoggle, supporters call it visionary. One side laments the dollars that will be diverted from other needs; the other will invoke the great infrastructure projects in California history as proof of what a long-term investment can create.

It should be interesting.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • RT

    There is a musical episode of the Simpsons where a con man sells Springfield the idea of a monorail. California’s high-speed train system is its monorail and we are being conned.

  • Steven Maviglio

    What’s amazing is that 24 nations around the world are moving to expand their high speed rail projects while here some politicians are doing all they can to stop it. What will be interesting is to see the numerous NIMBY and money arguments that arise when airports, roads, and other infrastructure will have to be expanded to meet the rising demand for transportation in California’s future — even with high speed rail. You would think political leaders would be high on a project that will create jobs now, reduce pollution, and generate billions of dollars of other economic activity. But apparently Mr. McCarthy and others are more interested in the politics stopping anything proposed by this administration instead of the jobs they could create in their own backyard. Shameful.

  • Anonymous

    Republicans’ have moved, in mind and action, from conservatives to regressives. If they could, they would have us all live in the stone age, and then they would be fighting against the use of the wheel. Unbelievable. The voters of California have repeatedly voted for the high speed rail. Having repeatedly lost in the ballot box, republicans not only have transformed this country into a heaven for corporations and a hell for individuals, they are are now sabotaging our future.  

  • Speech85

    It’s understandable.  The Republicans are not a state-wide party; they’re a regional party and to keep that much influence they need to represent regional interests.  So their stance isn’t really a surprise. 

  • Lea

    RT is right !! We are being scammed. We can not afford this and those in power know it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mommaglennis Glennis Roseberry

    We can’t pay for schools, we can’t pay for school transportation (think about the northern areas where there aren’t Neighborhood schools to walk to), but we can BUILD this?  Please scrap this project! It’s only a bandaid for the job market.

  • Anonymous

    New Statewide Field Poll  Dec. 2011 Results here proving that the
    MAJORITY OF CALIFORNIANS DO NOT WANT ANY KIND OF HIGH SPEED RAIL IN CALIFORNIA
    – COMPLETELY OPPOSITE OF WHAT RAY LAHOOD SAYS – DECEMBER 9, 2011 POLL HERE:

    http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2011/12/state-voters-would-reject-high-speed-rail-project-poll-shows.html
    and http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_19484490 and http://dallasmorningviewsblog.dallasnews.com/archives/2011/12/solid-majority.html

    This new statewide Field Poll confirms that
    9/29/2011 statewide poll that confirms CA voters would overwhelmingly vote to
    spend limited state money on education/tuition, mentally ill, water,
    environment (75%) over a “high-speed-train” between SF LA (11%).  63% vote to end the HSR boondoggle now &
    61% say they would never take a HSR train. Due to CA’s bad budget, in 2011 we
    saw: protests at UC/CSU from 26% tuition increases, lawsuits from
    cities/non-profits from CA taking their money but releasing convicted felons
    into our communities, senior centers/state parks closing, CA taking
    redevelopment funds, cutbacks in social services, etc. In contrast, HSR costs
    rose to $117 billion but feds only provide $3 billion & CA liable for $97
    billion and additional cost overruns. Call Governor at (916) 445-2841 and
    Treasurer Lockyer at(916) 653-2995to kill the boondoggle now. 

    Poll here:
    http://www.probolskyresearch.com/california-voters-on-state-spending-and-high-speed-rail/
    ans 
    http://www.probolskyresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Probolsky-Research-State-Spending-and-High-Speed-Rail-Results-Memorandum2.pdf

  • Anonymous

    Excuse me, but when
    you are f__ing broke, you don’t go out and take out a new loan for a brand new
    Ferrari that you’ve always wanted.  Prudence says throw away the credit
    card and live within your means.  California is broke. Instead of starting
    the most expensive boondoggle in US history, a single project that will sink
    the 8th largest World Economy (CA) into bankruptcy, we must ask:  

    1. why raise UC and CSU tuition rates 21% in one year, with more raises next
    year, if we somehow have enough money for a new Ferrari?

    2. why is CA releasing convicted felons to local communities (b/c state is
    broke and can’t afford to build new prisons), if we somehow have enough money
    for a new Ferrari?

    3. why are K-12 class sizes increasing this year, and last year, and next year,
    so K-12 is 30 kids per class, but was only 20 per class just 6 years ago, if we
    somehow have enough money for a new Ferrari?

    4. why is CA closing state parks, mental health centers, senior centers in 2011
    due to the $28 billion dollar deficit, if we somehow have enough money for a
    new Ferrari?

    5. why is CA Controller going to enact drastic – “automatic trigger budget
    cuts” because CA over projected revenues coming into CA, if we somehow
    have enough money for a new Ferrari?

     

    Why would any individual,
    family, state blow their life savings on a new Ferrari, when you can’t buy gas
    for your 10 yr old Honda?