More Unwelcome News for the California High Speed Rail Project

Decidedly, early June has not been the best of times for the California high-speed rail project.

On June 2, came a new poll showing that fifty-nine percent of voters would now oppose building high-speed rail if the measure were placed on the ballot again. Sixty-nine percent said that they would "never or hardly ever" ride the bullet train if it were built. (USC Dornsife/LA Times survey). The poll made news throughout the state, and indeed nationally. The public was treated to headlines such as "Voters have turned against California bullet train" (LA Times); "California high speed rail losing support" (Bloomberg); "California high speed rail doesn’t have the support of majority of Californians" (Huffington Post); "Voters don’t trust state to build high speed rail" (CalWatchdog) and "Poll finds California voters are experiencing buyers' remorse" (Associated Press).

Then, on the heels of the poll, came news that Central Valley farm groups have filed a major environmental lawsuit asking for preliminary injunction to block rail construction slated to begin later this year. Plaintiffs include the Madera and Merced county farm bureaus and Madera County. Still more agricultural interests in the Central Valley are reportedly threatening to sue.

The Sierra Club, traditionally a loyal supporter of Gov. Brown, announced it was "strongly opposed" to Brown’s proposal to eliminate California environmental (CEQA) requirements for the high speed rail program and its Central Valley construction project. The Brown administration has made its proposal despite a solemn promise to the legislature by the Authority’s Chairman, Dan Richard, that they would never try to bypass CEQA ("We have never and we will never come to you and ask you to mess with the CEQA requirements for the project level").

The multi-billion dollar HSR program is exactly the sort of large scale public works project that CEQA was designed to address, wrote Kathryn Phillips, Sierra Club’s Director in a June 5 letter to the Governor. "By removing a large-scale project such as high-speed rail from full CEQA coverage, the proposal grants the state a status that suggests it does not have to fully and seriously consider and mitigate environmental impacts. ... In the interests of the environment and in the interest of rebuilding public support for rail in this state, we urge you in the strongest possible terms to abandon the proposal to weaken environmental review for the high-speed rail system," the letter concludes.

Nor was this the end to unwelcome news for the Brown administration. A series of editorials and opinion pieces by some of California’s most influential columnists has reinforced the public’s growing disenchantment with the bullet train project and with the Governor’s stubborn determination to defy public opinion.

In a June 3 commentary,  the Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, a longtime observer of the legislative scene, refuted the Governor’s attempt to compare the high speed rail project with the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Both projects, the Governor had said in a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the bridge, took much political courage and foresight, and both will go down in history as remarkable gifts to posterity.

"Nice try, Governor," wrote Walters, but the comparison is misleading. The need for the Golden Gate crossing was clearly demonstrable and the bridge used revenue bonds to be repaid with bridge tolls. The need for a bullet train, on the other hand, "exists only in the minds of its ardent backers" and the Governor assumes that the federal government will finance nearly two-thirds of the project’s cost—an assumption that is nothing more than wishful thinking. Asked Walters, if the train is as financially viable as Brown and the Authority insist it is, why wouldn’t they do what the bridge builders did — float revenue bonds to be repaid from the train’s supposed operating profits. "Public works projects make sense when they fit well-documented needs. When they don’t, they are just political ego trips," Walters concluded.

Daniel Borenstein, columnist and editorial writer for the Contra Costa Times, came to a similar conclusion. In pushing for the bullet train, he wrote, Gov. Brown is motivated by a quest for a legacy. But, the columnist warned, while the Governor strives to be remembered like his late father for the capital projects he leaves behind, he could derail the November tax measure by his "reckless exuberance for spending billions on high speed rail." "Does he really want to anger [the voters] when he needs them the most?" Borenstein asked.

Perhaps the most devastating criticism of the Governor’s high speed rail initiative came in a June 8 editorial in the San Jose Mercury News, one of the Bay Area’s most influential newspapers. Entitled "High Speed Rail Plan is Delusional" the editorial has been syndicated in a number of Bay Area and Los Angeles Sunday papers. Follow this link to read it at the Mercury News website.