Influencers Opinion

Should California continue with its high-speed rail system? Influencers weigh in

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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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 – high-speed 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 a shown that high-speed rail has great potential for our future… 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,” said Lapsley, who praised Newsom’s approach since taking office. “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.”

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 non-viability 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 opportunity rich, 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.”

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