Two former California governors weigh in on bullet train project

‘We can’t solve big problems with short-term thinking’

By Jill Cowan


Maybe you haven’t thought much about California’s plan to build a high-speed rail line connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco since you voted for (or against) the nearly $10 billion bond measure to get the project started in 2008.

Maybe you didn’t live in California at the time, or you were too young to understand the instinctive appeal of an electrified transportation system that would replace gas-guzzling slogs up Interstate 5 with bullet train rides that would whisk riders between cities at speeds of more than 200 mph.

If any of that is true for you, it will probably come as no surprise that turning that grand vision into a reality has been monumentally difficult. The price tag of the effort has ballooned, and the route has shifted amid political squabbling and legal challenges. The future of the project has become uncertain, even as construction continues in the Central Valley.

But now, as I reported this week, there’s also heightened urgency around the effort, as the United States struggles to seriously address climate change and to overhaul crumbling roads, bridges, tunnels and railways.

President Joe Biden, in his State of the Union address this month, told Americans that the nation was embarking on an “infrastructure decade,” meant “to put us on the path to win the economic competition of the 21st century.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom, in his State of the State address not long after, said that California had “no peers” when it came to climate policy — but that the state still must decrease its dependence on fossil fuels and thus free itself from the “grasp of petro-dictators.” None of that can happen overnight, he said.

“We’ve learned we can’t solve big problems like climate change situationally, with short-term thinking,” he said.

Experts and supporters of high-speed rail told me that the technology, which has been used in countries around the world, fits the bill for such a sweeping change. The ambivalence around building high-speed rail, they said, tells us a lot about what seems to be an alarming inability to take on transformative projects in the United States, no matter how badly they’re needed.

Yonah Freemark, a researcher with the Urban Institute who has been following California’s high-speed rail project, put it this way: “The fact that California is the only place in the United States where high-speed rail is being built is not an indictment of California but of the United States.”

On its face, this is a money problem. The full line is now projected to cost $105 billion, and the state legislative analyst’s office said in a recent report that it’s unclear where a lot of that would come from.

But people who have been following California’s bullet train plan for a long time said that when it comes to big government projects, it’s ultimately a matter of political will.

That was a perspective shared by two of California’s top statesmen: Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who both championed the project while serving as governor.

Brown, a Democrat who has been governor twice, recalled riding Japan’s bullet train in the early 1960s, not long after it was built. As someone who has fond childhood memories of riding Southern Pacific Railroad’s Coast Daylight and Lark trains, he was intrigued.

During his first tenure as governor, Brown recalled, officials in the administration of his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, suggested that moving high-powered weapons around on new train lines would make it more difficult for enemies to target them. But Brown said he had another thought: Use high-speed rail for passengers.

“That was 1979,” he said. Brown asked lawmakers to study the issue.

By the time he became governor for the second time in 2011, after the bond measure led by Schwarzenegger had passed, other countries, including France, Spain and China, had built thousands of miles of electrified high-speed rail lines.

Today, Brown said, there’s yet another factor at play.

“We are in the situation of an increasingly competitive relationship with China,” he said.

But Schwarzenegger said the project had gotten bogged down by political provincialism that was chipping away at a desperately needed common good.

“It needs a cheerleader,” he said. “It needs someone that really is overlooking the whole thing.”

He added that it’s frustrating to hear opponents of the project dismiss it because it won’t make money.

“You look at the world and very rarely is any system very profitable,” Schwarzenegger said. “When we build schools, we don’t look like, ‘How do we make a big buck out of this whole thing?’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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