CA-Governor: Will High-Speed Rail Be an Issue?

In the May issue of Governing I wrote 3,000 words about high-speed rail in California, but I didn't answer what is, undoubtedly, the most important ...
by | May 4, 2010

In the May issue of Governing I wrote 3,000 words about high-speed rail in California, but I didn't answer what is, undoubtedly, the most important question: What about the politics?

For lots of reasons, high-speed rail in California is controversial. Despite billions of dollars in funding committed to the project, it might not happen. So, will California's choice of a governor this fall determine whether the state's government continues to support the vision of trains zipping from San Francisco to L.A. at up to 220 miles per hour?

Jerry Brown, the presumptive Democratic nominee, seems very likely to be a strong supporter of high-speed rail. That's because he already was pushing for high-speed rail the last time he was governor. Robert Cruickshank, chairman of Californians for High-Speed Rail, went over some of the history on his blog, which also helpfully illustrates how a change in gubernatorial administration can kill a high-speed rail project:

He has a history with high speed rail - during his governorship he was a strong supporter of HSR, despite opposition from some powerful state legislators. In 2003 Richard Trainor published an article on Brown's HSR efforts, a fascinating if incomplete read. Brown, with the help of one Mehdi Morshed, rushed a bill through the legislature in late summer 1982 to create an HSR system with Japanese contractors, exempt from CEQA and Coastal Commission review.

1982 was Brown's last year as governor. That year he ran for US Senate and lost to Pete Wilson. By 1983 anti-HSR forces, led by the Southern California Association of Governments, began attacking the HSR project. They tried to debunk the ridership studies using a "white paper" produced by the city of Tustin (my hometown - sorry!) and authored by Trainor. Soon thereafter, without support from Brown's successor, Governor George Deukmejian, and with only weak support in the legislature, the HSR project collapsed.

Cruickshank also noted that Steve Poizner, the underdog for the Republican nomination, has expressed opposition to the project at a local forum, while Meg Whitman, the frontrunner, hasn't taken a public position. That was in February, but I still don't see in public comments from Whitman.

For that matter, Brown doesn't even look as though he's publicly articulated what he thinks about high-speed rail 30 years later -- at least the local press hasn't reported on it. That's surprising, since people in California often describe their proposed high-speed rail network as the largest public works project in American history.

Whether it's Whitman or Poizner, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Republican nominee run against high-speed rail. It could be a wedge issue: Some of the fiercest critics of high-speed rail are in traditionally Democratic places such as San Mateo County.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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