Should Cal­i­for­nia con­tinue to de­velop statewide high-speed rail? Yes and no

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Insight - BY DAN SCHNUR Spe­cial to The Sacra­mento Bee

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.

Stay in the know: Go to www.fres­nobee.com/ in­flu­encers to sign up for the Cal­i­for­nia In­flu­encers news­let­ter – and tell us what you think.

Gov. Gavin New­som, like Jerry Brown and Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger be­fore him, strongly be­lieves that a high-speed train that whisks pas­sen­gers from Los An­ge­les to San Fran­cisco in less than three hours is a vi­tal part of Cal­i­for­nia's trans­porta­tion fu­ture.

“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,” said Lenny Men­donca, New­som's ap­pointee as chair of the Cal­i­for­nia High-Speed Rail Au­thor­ity. “Fast trains, jobs and a trans­porta­tion op­tion you can feel good about – high­speed rail is the fu­ture.”

But other state po­lit­i­cal lead­ers are less en­thu­si­as­tic.

“In three words: Pause and Re­assess,” cau­tioned Assem­bly Speaker An­thony Ren­don, who sup­ports com­ple­tion of the ini­tial Merced-to-Bak­ers­field seg­ment of the rail pro­ject but is wary of the costs of a statewide sys­tem. “(Gov.) New­som has ex­plic­itly rec­og­nized that the state has re­stricted funds for this… we need to lever­age our limited dol­lars with the goal in mind of max­i­miz­ing rail rid­er­ship through­out the state.”

Carolyn Cole­man, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor for the Cal­i­for­nia League of Cities, warned of the fund­ing de­mands for the state's other press­ing trans­porta­tion needs.

“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,” Cole­man said, ref­er­enc­ing the tens of bil­lions of dol­lars re­quired for road re­pairs over the next decade. “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.”

Cal­i­for­nia Busi­ness Round­table Pres­i­dent Rob Lap­s­ley praised the pos­si­bil­i­ties for high-speed rail, but he also ex­pressed con­cern about the po­ten­tial cost. “Other na­tions have shown that high­speed rail has great po­ten­tial for our fu­ture… but res­i­dents in the high­est­taxed state in the na­tion are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly skep­ti­cal that ma­jor tech­nol­ogy and in­fra­struc­ture projects, in­clud­ing high­speed rail, con­tinue to be over bud­get with ma­jor de­lays,” said Lap­s­ley, who praised New­som's ap­proach since tak­ing of­fice.

“High speed rail must show it can pro­duce longterm jobs and at­tract ma­jor new em­ploy­ers to the re­gion or it will jeop­ar­dize sup­port for ma­jor projects in the fu­ture.”

No Influencer was more em­phatic in op­po­si­tion to the pro­ject than Howard Jarvis Tax­pay­ers As­so­ci­a­tion Pres­i­dent Jon Coupal, who cited a study his group com­mis­sioned be­fore the pro­ject was voted on in 2008.

“Pull the plug. Now,”

Coupal said. “That study ac­cu­rately pre­dicted that… (high-speed rail) sim­ply would not work in Cal­i­for­nia. Ev­ery­thing we pre­dicted about the non­vi­a­bil­ity of the pro­ject in that study has ei­ther come true or proven to be even worse than pro­jected.”

But other In­flu­encers were ef­fu­sive in their praise for the rail sys­tem, high­light­ing eco­nomic, trans­porta­tion and en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits.

“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,” said Ce­sar Diaz, leg­isla­tive and po­lit­i­cal direc­tor for the State Build­ing and Con­struc­tion Trades Coun­cil.

“There is ab­so­lutely no bet­ter way to con­nect all re­gions of the state, from the eco­nomic rich coastal cities to less eco­nomic di­verse, but op­por­tu­ni­tyrich, in­land com­mu­ni­ties.”

Los An­ge­les de­vel­oper Perry Pound also sup­ported high-speed rail, link­ing its suc­cess to other nec­es­sary pol­icy re­forms.

“The ma­jor is­sues of our time are in­ter­con­nected,” said Pound, who is the manag­ing direc­tor for Greystar Real Es­tate. “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.

Lisa Her­shey, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor for Hous­ing Cal­i­for­nia, strongly backed the pro­ject as well, and she specif­i­cally em­pha­sized the con­nec­tion be­tween tran­sit and af­ford­able res­i­den­tial hous­ing.

“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,” Her­shey said. “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.”

CRAIG KOHLRUSS ck­[email protected]­nobee.com

The el­e­vated sec­tion of tracks for the Cal­i­for­nia high-speed rail pro­ject that will go over High­way 99 at Cedar Av­enue south of Fresno re­mains un­der con­struc­tion.

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