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Analysis: High speed rail wins, just barely

9:21 PM, Jul 6, 2012   |    comments
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SACRAMENTO, CA - As they packed their bags Friday afternoon and left the state Capitol for a one month summer recess, Democrats no doubt hoped that pundits will applaud their decision to authorize the first $8 billion in high speed rail funding.

But they also no doubt knew that the bullet train dodged a bullet of its own when it came to a contingent of skeptical legislators.

"The Legislature took bold action," said Gov. Jerry Brown in a written statement, "that gets Californians back to work and puts California out in front once again."

No doubt the governor sees even a narrow win as, first and foremost, a win.  A bare majority of Democrats in the state Senate voted for the bill to authorize the initial train spending, while four other Democrats and the entire GOP caucus voting no.

In the end, there are three big takeaways from this week's high-speed rail action at the statehouse (the Assembly took action on Thursday):

History vs. Math: Time and again in floor debate and private discussion, the high-speed rail debate bounced between the broad strokes of governing versus the tiny details of a complicated transportation system.

Pushing the 'let's make history argument' were Brown and other Democratic leaders, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, who several legislators said was lobbying hard for passage.

"Do we have the ability to see beyond the challenges, the political point scoring, and the controversies of today?" asked Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg in his floor remarks.  "Are we willing to take some short-term risk, knowing the benefit to this great state for centuries will be tremendous?"

But critics pointed out their concerns about the numbers -- about projected costs for a fully built bullet train system that have waxed and waned over the last few years (now standing at about $68 billion); about ridership estimates many have said have never fully been justified; and about the mechanical challenges of making a train system that will be as fast as voters expect it to be.

One critic -- who counts himself as generally a supporter -- was state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who wondered if the numbers problem was just the latest example of bad political math.

"I'm betting," he said in invoking the Legislature's action in 1999 to enhance public employee pensions, "people said, 'Oh just go along with the program.' And here we are, a decade later, trying to untangle billions of dollars of cost."

Roadblocks Ahead: Two great unknowns about the large and decades-long project remain, and they were also the focus of a lot of talk through the week.

First, the almost inevitability of lawsuits.  Already, high speed rail opponents are lining up to challenge the plans on whether they violate environmental laws.  And that may just be the beginning.  Supporters urged their fellow legislators to not see legal fights as a deterrent, arguing (sadly, but correctly) that almost everything the Legislature does these days gets challenged in court.

But the other potential roadblock may be bigger, and it goes back to money -- specifically, the fact that the vast majority of the money for the full high speed rail project is expected to come from the federal government.  And yet, congressional Republicans -- who control many of the purse strings already -- have pretty much said so far: no deal.

Supporters say it's not unusual to not have full funding commitments before a big project begins, but the politics of high speed rail will be very, very tricky to navigate.

Voter Reaction? And then there's the public -- which lined up behind the initial $10 billion in state borrowing for a high speed rail system in November 2008.  Recent polls have shown voters would like a do-over on that question, and would likely reject the proposal if given a second chance.  And then there was this week's headline grabbing statewide poll that found one of every five supporters of Governor Brown's November tax hike surveyed were less supportive of the initiative if the Legislature went forward with high-speed rail borrowing.

Gov. Brown won the hearts and minds of his fellow Democratic state officials.  But he may have to also win support out on the campaign trail this summer and fall, and explain to some skeptical voters how the state can afford to think big... while it's also cutting big to help balance the books.


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