In 2008, California voters authorized a $9.95 billion bond measure as a down-payment for a high-speed rail project linking the Sacramento (in northern California), the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles.
The projected $98 billion route subsequently won $3.3 billion in federal grants.
But with California in the midst of a severe budget shortfall, voter opinion has turned negative. A recent public opinion poll found that 64 percent of registered California voters (73 percent of Republicans and 49 percent of Democrats) would reject the project if given a second chance to vote on it — most citing the escalating costs and long-term completion date.
But don’t assume the California project – or, for that matter, other high-speed rail projects — are down for the count.
While the dramatic increase in cost has imposed sticker-shock on Californians, and while Congress has cut-off further federal funding for this and other high-speed rail projects, California Gov. Jerry Brown remains an ardent cheerleader, observing:
“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 former chairman of the House Transportation & Infastructure Committee, Jim Oberstar, now a private citizen, but still quite active politically, told The Washington Post:
“The financial uncertainties facing California’s high-speed rail project should not be read as an indictment of such rail development in America.
“High-speed, inter-city passenger rail can be successful, even profitable — as proven in France. The French national passenger rail system, wrote a check for $299 million to the national government just before Christmas, and has returned $780 million to the government over the last five years.
“Massive congestion is choking our major metropolitan areas, costing Americans $110 billion a year in lost productivity and wasted fuel. We must invest in a passenger rail alternative. The longer we wait, the less livable our cities will become and the more expensive the alternatives will be. The French have proven that the concept can succeed. We should follow their lead and not give up on inter-city passenger rail.
Moreover, the The New York Times observed:
“[While] for many Californians, struggling through a bleak era that has led some people to wonder if the state’s golden days are behind it, this project goes to the heart of the state’s pioneering spirit, recalling grand public investments in universities, water systems, roads and parks that once defined California as the leading edge of the nation.”
The UTU’s National Legislative Office is among those educating members of Congress to the long-term benefits of high-speed rail investment. For example, the UTU is reminding lawmakers that that construction of America’s Interstate Highway system began slowly and had to overcome substantial initial opposition.
While legislation to begin construction of Interstate Highways was passed by Congress in 1956, it was the culmination of two-decades of effort – with President Roosevelt the catalyst, much as President Obama is seeking to be the catalyst for nationwide high-speed rail.
As one historian recounted, “The plan had to be sold and sold again,” culminating with President Eisenhower providing the final push – convincing Congress that a $50 billion investment ($421 billion in 2011 dollars) was absolutely essential to ensure American mobility in the future.
“Patience and persistence achieved the goal of building Interstate Highways,” says National Legislative Director James Stem. “Patience and persistence will achieve the 21st century goal of President Obama for a nationwide 17,000-mile network of high-speed and higher-speed trains to provide 80 percent of the American population access to train travel by 2036.
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