Influencers Opinion

California has already started building a high-speed rail system. But should it continue?

Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth.

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California Influencers this week answered one or both of the following the questions: Should California continue to develop a statewide high-speed rail system, or what better ways are there to utilize the state’s available transportation funding? Below are the Influencers’ answers in their entirety.

High-speed rail is a faster, cleaner, transformative way forward

Lenny Mendonca – Chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority

Californians have told us loud and clear: They want to invest in environmentally friendly and socially responsible transportation options that will let them go places quickly and safely. They are no longer satisfied with a roads-only approach that has led to congestion, poor air quality, lost time and productivity.

On high-speed rail, passengers will move between the Bay Area and the Central Valley in just over an hour, or from San Francisco to LA in under 3 hours. The system will be electrically powered using renewable energy sources.

Today, in the Central Valley, construction is underway on 119 miles, with almost 3,000 craft workers employed by the project to date. Throughout the state, more than 500 small businesses – the economic backbone of California - are working on high-speed rail. Our construction contractors are using clean construction equipment to build, and recycling virtually all materials used. We are partnering locally to offset construction emissions by investing in clean vehicles – such as clean-diesel school buses - and have already planted hundreds of trees across the state.

Fast trains, jobs and a transportation option you can feel good about – Californians have spoken – high-speed rail is the future.

“We need to leverage our limited dollars”

Anthony Rendon - Speaker of the California State Assembly

In three words: Pause and Reassess. It’s what I’ve been saying since last year. Gov. Gavin Newsom has explicitly recognized that the state has restricted funds for this. That’s a great starting point. So is finishing what we’ve started in the Central Valley. Beyond that, we need to leverage our limited dollars with the goal in mind of maximizing rail ridership throughout the state. To take that one step further, maximizing ridership will be tough without significant upgrades to the rail system in the LA Basin.

High-speed rail bodes well for California’s future

Richard Bloom - California State Assemblyman (D-Santa Monica)

California’s environmental and economic future depends upon a modern transportation system that features walkable, bike-friendly, transit oriented cities that efficiently use limited roadway space. The ability to quickly traverse long distances remains crucial. While single passenger vehicles and air travel will not disappear, we need alternatives if we are to avoid widespread gridlock on the ground and in the skies.

It is not surprising that our voter initiated High Speed Rail project, a massive undertaking by any measure, is controversial A lengthy construction schedule doesn’t help. Still, high speed rail, commonplace and successful in many industrialized countries, is an essential part of our future.

Consider the following:

  • California High Speed Rail (HSR) will help alleviate highway overcrowding;

  • All-electric HSR helps with climate change by reducing carbon emissions and also lowers air pollutants in highly polluted areas;

  • HSR project has brought good jobs to the Central Valley where the drought and recession had left local economies in tatters;

  • Multi-modal transportation will encourage new industries and housing growth;

  • HSR is expensive. But, so are roads, subways and airports. Dollar for dollar, HSR is a sound investment of taxpayer monies

High Speed Rail represents a significant step forward for California.

“This project is a shameful waste of taxpayers’ dollars”

Shannon Grove - California State Senator (R-Bakersfield)

The California High Speed Rail Authority released its 2019 Report in May which indicated that the cost of the bullet train will be $120 million per mile, and rising by the minute. Amtrak already goes from Bakersfield to Merced and a one way ticket starts at $27.75.

It is beyond a shadow of a doubt that the HSR Authority is incapable of building anything that resembles what they promised voters. Whether it is the loss of federal funds, the looming deadlines, or the failure to comply with the requirements of Proposition 1A, the more we look at this project, the more uncertainties come to light.

The governor and Sacramento Democrats can no longer pretend they don’t know that this project is a shameful waste of taxpayers’ dollars. We must kill the big rail fail and stop throwing our hard-earned money down the drain.

Instead we should invest those dollars to address regional congestion problems and our failing roads, highways, and regional transit systems. Another option is to repurpose up to $3.5 billion of recovered federal funding from the bullet train to critical water infrastructure projects for California. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy introduced House Resolution 1600 and I support it.

“We must continue building high-speed rail”

Jim Boren - Executive Director of the Institute for Media and Public Trust at Fresno State

California’s high-speed rail project is the victim of poor planning and cost overruns that came in reaction to being whipsawed in every direction as those in charge of the project tried to appease the political nitpickers. If the naysayers were in charge in the 1960s, we would never have built the water, transportation and education systems that laid the foundation for California’s greatness.

We must continue building high-speed rail. California needs a transportation system that includes high-speed rail, and is smartly integrated with other transportation options. Freeways no longer can carry the transportation load. High-speed rail is not some crazy technology. Japan inaugurated its bullet train in 1964 between Tokyo and Osaka, and now more than 20 countries have HSR. The world has been doing this for more than a half-century.

With California’s population, we must have a transportation system that is more than building freeways and subsiding air travel. HSR will be an economic game-changer, and cost less than the subsidies we are paying to support auto and air travel.

Put politics aside, and develop a feasible business plan that brings high-speed rail to California. It can be done if we focus on the task, and not on political games.

California has more pressing needs

Janice Rutherford - San Bernardino County Supervisor

No, we should not continue to develop a statewide high speed rail system because there are much better ways to spend state transportation dollars that serve more people. We ought to be investing in local transit and highway projects that make sense and meet consumer demand. We need transit to Ontario International Airport, as well as connecting ONT with San Diego International Airport since the latter is constrained while ONT has capacity. We need to look at higher frequency service on the Metrolink system to meet higher density development demands.

“A more robust, reliable and usable transportation system is needed”

Dan Dunmoyer - President and CEO of the California Building Industry Association

Transportation congestion is the leading complaint of NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) within local neighborhood groups when homebuilders begin the process of developing land for more housing within a community. A more robust, reliable and usable transportation system is needed to make building more homes an easier activity for existing communities to welcome. Smart and strategic investments in public transportation along key transportation corridors has been shown to work, such as in Richmond, Virginia which saw a 17% jump in ridership this last year after launching a new rapid transit called Pulse. When utilized wisely to target ridership, a well-positioned high speed rail system utilizing transportation funds can simultaneously reduce greenhouse gases and tackle the legitimate concerns of the transportation impact of new housing in already congested areas.

Pull the plug. Now.

Jon Coupal - President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association

Prior to the HSR bond measure vote in 2008, Jarvis Taxpayers Association commissioned a study by the Reason Foundation to assess the viability of the project. That study accurately predicted that, in terms of ridership, revenue, costs, engineering feasibility and numerous other metrics that HSR simply would not work in California. Everything we predicted about the non-viability of the project in that study has either come true or proven to be even worse than projected.

Of course, the biggest irony of all is that HSR was sold as “green” project that would reduce GHG emissions. And yet the only thing that HSR has done successfully during the construction phase is to put millions of metric tons of GHG emissions into the atmosphere. California’s High Speed Rail project has now devolved into an international joke of a boondoggle. The sad thing is, we knew this back in 2008.

We can’t pull the plug fast enough on HSR.

“California can’t compete in the 21st century without modernizing its transportation system”

Cesar Diaz - Legislative and Political Director for the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California

High speed rail connects climate change, affordable housing, and economic and environmental justice issues together. The project is now under construction after being debated for over forty years.

California can’t compete in the 21st century without modernizing its transportation system, particularly when you consider that by 2030 California’s population will reach 45 million people. Then consider how you will spend your time in an electric automated vehicle, not bothered with driving, but also stuck in traffic.

Policymakers, local governments, environmental organizations, transportation agencies and even housing advocates must get behind the high speed rail if they are serious about addressing climate change, affordable housing built next to high quality transit and improving the environmental and economic environment of the Central Valley.

The project tackles the root causes of greenhouse gas production by significantly reducing traffic, congestion, pollution and commute times. It connects working families to communities that can provide affordable housing, and creates new economic opportunities for Central Valley residents while improving air quality. There is absolutely no better way to connect all regions of the state, from the economic rich coastal cities to less economic diverse, but opportunity rich, inland communities.

Let’s build an accessible California for all

Carolyn Coleman - Executive Director of the League of California Cities

Building a robust, multimodal transportation system is key to the state’s competitiveness and ensuring an accessible California for all. A statewide high speed rail system will cost a significant amount of money and take many years to complete, even under the best of circumstances. The sooner plans for the project’s continued financial feasibility and operational costs can be clarified, the better. If there are savings from the project, or if the state otherwise has available transportation funding, our local streets and roads should be a top priority for additional investment. While recent transportation investments represented a massive funding infusion for city streets and county roads that reduced the 10-year $70 billion shortfall by $18 billion, the unmet funding needs continue to exceed $50 billion over the next 10 years. With responsibility for over 85 percent of California’s roads, getting the transportation infrastructure we have into a state of good repair will continue to require existing and additional resources as they become available.

High-speed trains can transform travel, and local voices need to be at the table

Amanda Eaken - Director of Transportation and Climate of the Natural Resources Defense Council

I can’t wait for the day I can pedal an electric bikeshare to downtown San Francisco in 10 minutes, step seamlessly onto a high speed train, and get to my meetings in downtown LA 2.5 hours later, 100% emissions free. It would completely transform the experience of traveling between California’s two major metropolitan areas, and presents a once in a generation opportunity to align growth around train stations with California’s sustainable development and climate goals. Experience in other countries suggests that high speed rail can be an effective low-carbon alternative to air and vehicle travel, and that once built, people use it. That said, we need to make sure the process of building this critical project avoids the unfortunate legacy of major transportation infrastructure projects in the past, and includes the voices of local communities in key decisions. We need to see more effective management of project delivery and accountability from the agency for high-speed rail to deliver on its potential.

“Other nations have a shown that high-speed rail has great potential for our future”

Rob Lapsley - President of the California Business Roundtable

Creating jobs means we need integrated mobility solutions through a vastly improved transportation infrastructure that can be a catalyst for new employment centers in underserved regions of our state like the Central Valley. Other nations have a shown that high-speed rail has great potential for our future if the state can show it can finally deliver. California is the innovation capital of the world, but residents in the highest-taxed state in the nation are becoming increasingly skeptical that major technology and infrastructure projects, including high-speed rail, continue to be over budget with major delays. As our new governor, Gavin Newsom has probably the final chance to fix the previous management mistakes and get high-speed rail back on track. He took the first step by putting in a strong management team and starting an honest discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of the current project. Now it’s time to demonstrate that this first part can be done in a fiscally responsible and transparent way, especially as mass transit ridership continues to decline in this state. High speed rail must show it can produce long-term jobs and attract major new employers to the region or it will jeopardize support for major projects in the future.

“As California builds this project, we should also focus beyond the tracks”

Lisa Hershey - Executive Director of Housing California

High speed rail has the potential to mitigate climate change, ease commutes, and provide access to employment while improving air quality for Central Valley residents. As California builds this project, we should also focus beyond the tracks – developing a concurrent strategy to ensure land near stations is secured for affordable, compact residential development that makes it easy for large numbers of residents to reach the train. The more people who can easily access a station, the more we’ll all gain from this investment in the form of increased ridership, cleaner air and less congested highways.

The last key to unlock the potential of high-speed rail is ongoing investment in local transit, biking, and walking options that allow people to complete their door-to-door trip without a car. The state’s Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities (AHSC) Program is a resoundingly successful example of addressing transit, active transportation and housing as a complete package. Investment in both High Speed Rail and AHSC community design will create the most impactful results by mitigating climate change and creating sustainable, connected, and vibrant communities where all Californians will thrive.

“California should continue to develop a statewide high speed rail system”

Perry Pound - Managing Director of Development for Los Angeles County for Greystar

California should continue to develop a statewide high speed rail system, in addition to continuing to invest in light rail within major cities. The major issues of our time are interconnected. We must solve the housing crisis by building more high density affordable and market-rate housing close to transit. We must solve the climate crisis in part by building a mass transit system that works for everyone. We must ensure continued economic growth by providing efficient and affordable housing and transit options for all citizens.

“We need to focus on solving the state’s housing crisis and improving transportation corridors”

Jennifer Svec - Legislative Advocate for the California Association of Realtors

We need to focus on solving the state’s housing crisis and improving transportation corridors in a manner that will increase housing production. California’s imbalance between supply and demand is the result of strong economic growth, which has created thousands of new jobs. Combine that with the insufficient construction of new units to meet the demand for housing, you get the dire housing crunch we’re in. In 2018, California had the 49th lowest ratio of housing units per resident. California’s typical home costs $570,000 – nearly 2½ times that of the national average of $257,600. Meanwhile, California renters are spending, on average, 68% of their income on rent. In a recent poll, 53% of Californians and 63% of millennials are considering leaving the state due to high housing costs. Bills like SB 50 and SB 592 by Sen. Wiener and SB 330 by Sen. Skinner seek to increase housing production in job rich transportation corridors, which are vital to addressing this systemic problem. It’s time that California gets serious on solving the housing crisis! For more information on this movement please visit:

Why ask for “or” when the correct answer is “and?”

Carl Guardino - President and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group

As a transportation policy professional for nearly 30 years, and an initiative campaign professional who is lead or co-lead 7 successful transportation funding campaigns that have generated more than $30 billion in local funding, the most common question I continue to be asked is “Why don’t we use High Speed Rail funds for a different purpose?” The first, and most obvious answer is, it would be illegal. Voters approved the 2008 High Speed Rail Bond of $9.95 billion for a specific use. It cannot be changed without voter approval to fund other priorities, and that has never been done. Until and unless that change occurs, let’s focus on why funding both High Speed Rail and our myriad of other transportation needs are important.

  • High Speed Rail: At his January State of the State Address, Governor Newsom combined common sense with available dollars and cents. He stated the obvious - Have a vision, which is not inconsistent with fiscal responsibility. His plans for High Speed Rail are three fold: 1) Build a workable Central Valley segment; 171 miles between Bakersfield and Merced, 2) Complete the promised “book-end” improvements for Caltrain along the San Francisco Peninsula and Union Station in Los Angeles, and 3) Fund the EIR for the entire line as proposed. Those three investments account for the funds we have. A vital next step is to link our agricultural rich Central Valley with the global hub of Silicon Valley’s Innovation Economy at San Jose’s Diridon Station. That, however, requires more money.
  • Additional Transportation needs: Yes, after decades of neglect, Senate Bill 1 of 2017 is a booster shot to an anemic patient. The $5.4 billion annually is already being placed to great use by the CA Transportation Commission, on which I have the honor to serve. Senate Bill 1 was a wise combination of maintaining and fixing what we have (street and highway maintenance and repair, bridge improvements), while also adding traffic relief and transit alternatives. As important as the funds are in SB 1 for specific transportation improvements, the provisions for transparency and accountability are even more important. Watch carefully for any and all efforts by special interests to trim the authority - and therefore financial accountability - of the CA Transportation Commission. Some of the $5.4 billion in annual funds is competitive. Most is distributed by formula. Every dime - whether competitive or formula - must be accountable and transparent to the voters and taxpayers who are funding it.

When we are asked for the false choice of “High Speed Rail or Other Transportation Improvements,” never forget, the answer is “and.” We can walk, and chew gum, at the same time.

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
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