If legislators are paid to make the hard decisions, they earned their money last Friday.
At a time when most politicians’ long-term view extends no farther than the next election, the Democrats in the Legislature looked to California’s future by approving construction of the first 130-mile segment of the state’s long-planned high-speed rail system.
It wasn’t an easy call. The price tag for the Los Angeles to San Francisco system had risen from the original $33 billion estimate to nearly $100 billion before rail officials scaled back the plan to the current $68 billion. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t believe that number will grow before the project is completed in 2029.
Polls show that the high-speed rail plan is far less popular today than it was in 2008, when voters (supported by two-thirds of the Legislature) approved nearly $10 billion in bonds for the project. Besides California’s shaky economy, people in many parts of the state have found they prefer the concept of high-speed rail to the reality of a train roaring past their homes and farms.
But while opponents complain about the cost, the route, the economics and the problems construction will bring, they haven’t been able to touch the original rationale for the project. There’s still a need to link the far-flung regions of the state together, especially the fast-growing Central Valley, which will continue to be little more than fly-over territory without high-speed passenger rail. An alternative to air travel makes sense now and in the future.
And for the people who complain that the time isn’t right, here’s one question: If not now, when?
Gov. Jerry Brown, who put every bit of his clout behind the rail system, hailed the Legislature for its “bold action,” which actually highlights the problems the rail supporters faced.
“Bold” isn’t typically a good thing for politicians. Bold implies controversy, opposition and unpopular decisions in the face of loud complaints and angry voters. The way to stay popular — and in office — is to follow the crowd, not lead the parade, especially when there are plenty of people who don’t want to march.
But Brown and other rail supporters put on a full political press, tossing in transit goodies for Los Angeles and Bay Area legislators unhappy that the first tracks would link Madera and Bakersfield in the Central Valley.
They also played the history card, warning legislators that they stood at a pivotal point in California’s future.
Darrell Steinberg, the Democratic leader in the state Senate, scrambled to round up the needed votes, telling the Democratic members they had to look past “the challenges, the political point scoring and the controversies of today” and take a chance for the future.
He got his votes, despite the Legislature’s Republicans playing their continuing role as “the party of no” and positioning themselves to say “I told you so” every time there’s a delay, a cost increase or some other hiccup with the rail plan.
But the GOP and other naysayers might want to take a look back in transit history to the early 1960s, when plans to build the BART system were being discussed – loudly discussed – in the Bay Area.
Two of the original members of the system, San Mateo and Marin counties, opted out because of the growing cost estimates. The $792 million construction bond in 1962, which needed 60 percent of the votes to pass, barely scraped by with 61.2 percent. And before construction started, there were lawsuits and redesigns that added millions to the cost.
But now, 50 years later, it’s impossible to imagine the Bay Area without BART. The system has linked the far-flung suburbs with the core urban areas of Oakland and San Francisco, providing easy access in both directions to jobs, business and housing and guiding the effort for well-planned regional growth. Santa Clara County, which stayed out of the original system, has decided to pay billions to get back in and finance a new BART link into San Jose.
There are going to be plenty more bumps, financial, legal and otherwise, on the way to a statewide high-speed rail system. There also will be plenty of concern about whether California is doing the right thing or even if it can afford to do the right thing.
But California became the state it is by betting on the future and that’s what the majority in the Legislature has done.
“While we acknowledge the risk in going forward, there would be even greater risk to do nothing,” Steinberg said after Friday’s vote. “In the end, my colleagues understood that what is difficult and unpopular in the short run often becomes a point of pride and progress years later.”
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.