Groundbreakings of major California infrastructure projects (transit, water, roadways) are usually Potemkin village affairs, populated by politicians who have had little to do with the project that was in development for many years by their (usually absent) predecessors.
This morning’s groundbreaking in Fresno for the California High Speed Rail system should at least feature current elected and appointed officials who legitimately have been the prime movers of the project, including Governor Jerry Brown , Congressman Jim Costa, and Authority Chair Dan Richard. As is well-known, there is no high speed rail project in California without Governor Brown and Congressman Costa. Less-known, Authority Chair Richard’s role in the past four years quietly and seriously traveling the Central Valley meeting with rotary clubs, chambers of commerce, agricultural groups, and seemingly any groups of two or more Valley residents to win local support.
But it is also true that the high speed rail project has been in development for several decades in California. The contributions of many people who may not play a highlighted role today at the event should not go unnoted, and let me briefly mention a few from my own memory bank–with the hope that others involved with High Speed Rail in California will join with their own recollections, in a collective history.
The idea of a high speed rail system dates back to Governor Brown’s first Administration in the 1970s, and along with Governor Brown, one of the early champions was Lynn Schenk. As Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing, Schenk recognized high speed rail in California as part of the state’s transportation mix. As a Congresswoman in 1994, she authored the High Speed Rail Development Act of 1994, and later was appointed to the Authority in 2003, where she continues as a member today.
The high speed rail idea in California took on organizational form in 1993 with the formation of the California Intercity High Speed Rail Commission (Commission members from 1996 pictured above). The Commission issued its findings in 1996 on the viability of a high speed rail network connecting major metropolitan areas, which led to the formation of Authority (SB1420).
Today, the Authority spans several floors of a building at L and 8th in Sacramento. But if you went to the Authority’s offices in the late 1990s and early 2000s, you’d find at most a handful of people. The Authority was kept alive during this time to a great extent by Mehdi Morshed, the Executive Director, along with deputy directors Dan Leavitt (the Commission’s first executive director) and Carrie Pourvahidi. You don’t see much about them in most current write-ups of the Authority, but they saw the project through a time when it was often under attack and targeted for defunding.
The Authority and the High Speed Rail probably would have ended in 2008 except for the passage that November of Prop 1A , the $9.9 billion high speed rail bond measure. Assemblymembers Cathleen Galgiani and Fiona Ma co-authored AB3034, and were instrumental in the campaign. I participated with the finance committee for Prop 1A; and can still see Denise LaPointe, Jerry Hallisey, Kam Kuwata, Jo Linda Thompson, Jim Earp, Tom Umberg, and Jim Lazarus, among others, as David Townsend, the lead campaign consultant, talked to us about his polling and a strategy. Prop 1A was never ahead by much in polling, and in the end passed narrowly.
Of course, standing above all in the legislative creation of the Commission and Authority, in the maintaining of the Authority, in the passage of Prop 1A in 2008, in the subsequent Authority implementation, was State Senator and later Judge Quentin Kopp.
Kopp became an advocate of high speed rail after riding the French bullet train in 1982. Following his election to the State Senate in 1986,he co-authored the legislation establishing first the Commission and later the Authority. The Authority would not have made it until 2008 without Kopp’s leadership, and successful legislative battles against defunding.
During the Prop 1A campaign, Kopp barnstormed throughout the state, raising funds, speaking to the media, addressing local organizations. In the photo above from March 2008, he is with Senator Carole Migden and Supervisor Aaron Peskin, at a rally at San Francisco’s City Hall. Kopp won a series of personal elections in his career as Supervisor and State Senator, but I believe he would point to the Prop 1A campaign as his most important campaign.
In the past few years, Kopp has become a critic of the Authority’s strategies, particularly the blended strategy of commuter and high speed rail that the Authority has adopted. As late as this past weekend, Kopp was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as criticizing the Authority and the groundbreaking event.
Kopp’s views have led some Authority staff and supporters to see him as an opponent. He will certainly not be at the event this morning. But just as there is no groundbreaking this morning without Governor Brown, Congressman Costa, former Congresswoman Lynn Schenk, and Authority Chair Richard, there would be no groundbreaking without Quentin Kopp.