The bullet train may be back on track. Earlier this month the state legislature narrowly approved $8 billion dollars in bond money to start construction of the high-speed rail system connecting Los Angeles to the Bay Area. Governor Jerry Brown signed off at ceremonies in LA and San Francisco.
The project is now expected to cost close to $69 billion dollars to complete. The bulk of the money the legislature just approved will go to start building a 130-mile stretch of track in the Central Valley; about a quarter will go to local transportation projects in LA and San Francisco.
The bullet train project is controversial. The scope – and the price tag – has changed many times since voters first approved the plan back in 2008, and the project now faces multiple lawsuits designed to stop construction before it starts. KALW’s transportation reporter Julie Caine sat down with Mike Rosenberg, a reporter who covers high-speed rail for the San Jose Mercury News, to talk about what happens next. Below is the full transcript of the interview, which was edited for broadcast.
JULIE CAINE: I wondered if we could start with giving people a sense of what high-speed rail is right now in California? It's been through so many changes—different price tags, different plans. Can you give us a brief overview about what the legislature just approved and Jerry Brown signed into law?
MIKE ROSENBERG: Sure. The legislature approved a bill worth $8 billion dollars. It's the starting point for high-speed rail. So there’s going to be a $6 billion dollar stretch of track in the Central Valley, around Fresno. And there's also going to be about $2-billion dollars worth of upgrades to projects in the Bay Area and Southern California. For us, that means electrifying the Caltrain line that runs between San Francisco and San Jose. The reason they're doing that is these are projects that will help now in the Bay Area and LA area, but they'll also lay the groundwork for high-speed rail later. The entire high-speed rail project that runs between San Francisco and LA is slated to cost about $69 billion dollars.
CAINE: So there's $8 billion of that money now. Are there any plans for how to get the $61 billion that are needed?
ROSENBERG: Not really. There's a little bit of bond money left over from when voters approved the project in 2008. There's a few billion dollars left from that, but as far as the rest of the money, it's all sort of on paper. They're hoping the federal government kicks in about $40-50 billion. But they've zeroed out all funding for the last three years, and Republicans have sort of made a mockery of the project in the House. The only way that they'll really be able to get the money is if something changes in the political climate in Washington.
The other back-up plan is to use new greenhouse gas fees that are coming down at the state level. Big polluters would have to pay because of their greenhouse gases and that would have to go to environmentally friendly projects. High-speed rail is going to try to tap into that, but that's also a questionable source of funding.
CAINE: So right now all that the money will pay for is a stretch of track in the Central Valley and improvements to rail systems in LA and San Francisco. Why start in the Central Valley? Why is construction starting there?
ROSENBERG: The consensus view is that, putting aside backroom deals with Central Valley politicians, it was something that was decided on by the federal government. The Obama Administration is desperate to see some sort of high-speed rail built because California is the only state left that actually has plans for a high-speed train that's anywhere near reality. The Central Valley portion is the biggest stretch of land where they can build the biggest stretch of track. They can build about 130 miles down there, whereas if they were to do it here or in LA, it would be a much smaller amount. The theory is that once you have a bunch of tracks sitting there doing nothing, it's going to be much harder to abandon, so that puts the pressure on politicians to give more money. Whereas if you were doing something that had use, like electrifying the Caltrain line, they'd say, well, you know we succeeded at that and let's abandon it. Whereas the entire Central Valley stretch of track is going to be tough to let sit out there as a sign of failure.
CAINE: It would be a source of embarrassment to the federal government if nothing else happened but that stretch of track?
CAINE: I'm curious about the support in California for high-speed rail. The legislature just voted on whether they were going to approve releasing the bond that voters passed in 2008, and that was an incredibly close vote. In the state senate it needed 21 votes to pass, and it got exactly 21 votes. No Republicans voted in favor, and some of the major Democratic supporters of high-speed rail voted against it. One of those was Senator Joe Simitian from Palo Alto, who changed his vote to no at the last minute. I'm wondering what it meant for someone like Joe Simitian to vote against the high-speed rail plan?
ROSENBERG: It's actually really significant. I mean on one hand he's just one guy, but him and also a Democrat from Concord named Mark DeSaulnier and another one from Long Beach called Alan Lowenthal, they were the three guys who were tasked with overseeing the bullet train for the Democratic Party. And they were the three who came out and said, you know, the more we look into this, the more we don't like it. The other democrats were supposed to rely on their expertise, but once they said that they didn't want to go forward with the project, they had to weigh that with the leadership, like the president of the Senate, Darrell Steinberg, and of course the governor, who are die-hard supporters. And they all ended up just going with the program and approving it, even though as far as I can tell, they didn't necessarily know that much about what they were voting on. But the ones who had been following it decided ultimately to vote against it.
CAINE: Can you tell me a little bit about some of the reasons Joe Simitian gave for voting against something that he has really championed, even since before 2008.
ROSENBERG: The biggest reasons for him, and really anyone who doesn't like the project, is the cost and the uncertain funding. I mean $69 billion dollars is more money than any state has ever spent on any public works project. It's an unprecedented amount of money, and finding that much money is just going to be a really big chore. Following that, there are a lot of questions about whether this is actually worthwhile in the first place. The rider estimates keep going down, and they're questionable. And people are wondering what exactly will happen to the property along the way. There's a 520-mile route that this is going to take, and that's going to take over a lot of businesses and homes along the way. So that's going to cause a lot of economic damages as well, not to mention people's livelihoods. If it was just about whether or not we had the money and we were trying to decide whether it was worthwhile, it would sort of put a lot of people on fence. Those who are wobbling on it get pushed over the edge by the fact that there really isn't that clear of a plan to actually get this done. They're scared that they're going to be only left with that one stretch of tracks.
CAINE: It's interesting that building is starting in the Central Valley where there is a lot of opposition, very vocal opposition to the project, and in fact a lot of litigation. I'm wondering if you can talk about some of the real obstacles, particularly legal obstacles, that are in the way of the bullet train now.
ROSENBERG: Yeah, it’s funny. The Central Valley was supposed to be the easy part. Because the opposition was really in the Bay Area, and there were just so many people in LA that they would have to displace. But the Central Valley, they were supposed to just say yeah, this is great, come on down. It turns out they were the ones who rose up against the fiercest. And now they're really only faced with one option, which is to sue. Because no one has any control over the project, outside of the state and federal governments. So if you're a local county, or a city, or a farmer, or a business owner, the only thing you can do is to try to sue. There are about half a dozen suits going on right now, and there’s going to be more coming. The general idea is to have a judge issue an injunction to stop them from being able to start construction. That’s something that will be playing out over the past six months or so.
CAINE: I know there are also some questions about whether the plan that the legislature and Jerry Brown just approved is actually legal in terms of what the voters voted on in 2008 because the high-speed rail plan has changed so much since that time. Can you talk a little bit about that? What are the major points of contention between what voters approved in 2008, and what was just approved?
ROSENBERG: It’s an ethical argument saying that we voted on a certain plan. It was supposed to be $33 billion, now it's twice that. It was supposed to open by 2020, now it's 2030. The ticket to get from SF to LA was supposed to be 55 bucks, now it's like 85 bucks. The rider estimates have gone in half. Everything has changed pretty dramatically. Some of the opponents are trying to go beyond an ethical argument and saying it's just flat out illegal. You can't use this money—it's a legal statue that was created when voters passed the bond measure to approve the project in 2008, so if you're going to use that money you have to adhere by what you said you were going to spend the money on. That's probably not an argument that's going to win in a legal sense cause they usually give them leeway to spend money on those sorts of things, when the details have changed. But just from an ethical standpoint, that's the main argument that opponents cite, when you talk about people who once supported it and are now against it.
ROSENBERG: I know a lot of the opposition to the plan is very political, and a lot Republicans when they were giving their statements about why they didn't support high-speed rail were starting to invoke huge budget cuts that the state is facing, particularly for education, and really using this as a kind of focal point to turn voter sentiment against Jerry Brown's November tax initiative, which is the centerpiece of how he's going to finance some of the social programs and education in the state. Is the bond money that just got approved actually money that could be used for education for example?
ROSENBERG: It depends on who you ask. The voters approved $10 billion dollars in bonds, and that money can only be spend on high-speed rail. Now, the bond money itself gets paid back through the General Fund, which is used on everything--education, social services, prisons. So the money right now is only available for high-speed rail, but when they start paying it back over the next three decades, that will cut into all the other programs.
CAINE: I'm just curious, in light of all of that, why is Jerry Brown still such a champion of high-speed rail? Why is he still so behind it?
ROSENBERG: There’s a couple of schools of thought on that. I mean what he says is that he dreams of doing big things and he doesn't believe that bad times are the time to shy away. He had this press conference where he called all the skeptics fearful men and nimbys and declinists. He tends to take his point of view and he doesn't necessarily care so much about what the polls say. Especially when it comes to a long-term project. To be frank, by the time the project's finished even on the most optimistic standards, Jerry Brown will probably be passed away. So it's something that's so long term, he'll never really have to deal with the repercussions of it. From a skeptic's standpoint what people point to is that the main driver of this project in terms of the funding to get the ballot measure passed and to keep it going and to lobby politicians has come from the construction unions. Because that $69 billion dollars, that's going into their pockets. And Democrats—Brown and some of the others—are funded mostly by the unions so if they turn down a project that the unions support, then they risk losing the support of their major funding backers and then they might not get elected back to office.