A Critical Juncture for High-Speed Rail in America

Written By Malcolm Kenton

Public debate around the California High-Speed Rail project is heating up as the state legislature prepares to vote on whether or not to continue funding the momentous undertaking, which still represents America's best shot at having a world-class high-speed rail line up and running within the next 10 years. The project's opponents continue to distort reality in arguing that the state can't afford high-speed rail -- when, in fact, it would cost the state even more over the next few decades to meet the travel needs of its growing population in the absence of high-speed rail. Not only that, but if California fails, it becomes very difficult to get major passenger train improvements built elsewhere in the country.

Image: California High-Speed Rail Authority
Image: California High-Speed Rail Authority

A University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times poll released June 1proported to show a majority of Californians are opposed to high-speed rail, but the questions the poll asked were misleading, pitting HSR against other public needs while failing to acknowledge the need for, and benefits of, a modern transportation link within the state. Californians for High-Speed Rail Executive Director Daniel Krause responded by saying that the poll contains "he-said, she-said statements in the absence of well-researched and accurate information, thus unfairly influencing and biasing poll respondents."

"The public has been inundated by false claims that HSR will compete with schools and other priorities while it is shut out from hearing about how HSR will generate significant revenue for the State over the next few years and how it will lay the foundation for long-term economic prosperity and environmental transformation," Krause (also a member of NARP's Council of Representatives) pointed out.

The Obama Administration signalled yesterday that it remains committed to the project, joining California Governor Jerry Brown in taking a visionary, long-term view in the face of heavy and sustained criticism from a number of quarters. The announcement came from Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo, who told the American Public Transportation Association on Monday that the President's support for passenger trains "remains as strong as ever." "Americans want – and they deserve – more transportation choices," he added. "They’re tired of being stuck in traffic, delayed in airports, and facing pain at the pump."

California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg last Wednesday had called on the Obama Administration to declare whether or not it will commit federal money to continue the build-out if President Obama wins a second term. It should be clear now that the answer is yes, so long as the FRA has additional grant money to spend. That, of course, is up to Congress.

On May 30, the California High-Speed Rail Authority named a former director of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) as its new Chief Executive. Jeff Morales, who had been working on the project as an executive for project manager Parsons Brinckerhoff, fills the top job that had been vacant since the early January departure of Roelof van Ark. The appointment comes at a time when the Authority's Board of Directors is trying to assure state lawmakers that it is moving quickly to fill vacancies and prepare itself for an aggressive construction timeline. Opposition to the project has led to delays in the plan's implementation.

Another sticking point is the extensive environmental reviews required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) before construction can start, and the many avenues that these reviews open for litigation by opponents. High-Speed Rail Authority Chairman Dan Richard said early last week that he wanted the state to grant the Authority some type of relief from the requirements so the project had a better chance of meeting the 2017 deadline.

Granting Richard's wish and reinforcing his commitment to high-speed rail, Governor Brown called on the legislature Friday to pass, as part of the HSR funding package, a provision increasing the burden of proof opponents would have to meet to successfully challenge HSR in court under CEQA. Opponents would have to prove that the project causes "major environmental problems" such as wiping out an endangered species or damaging extremely valuable land, instead of simply convincing a judge that there were minor flaws in the way the environmental review was conducted.

Earlier, US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on May 11 called on California lawmakers not to wait until fall to vote on approving the high-speed rail project's budget, saying it should take place this month. "My message to the Assembly, to the leadership, is that we need to make sure that there's a continued, strong commitment on the part of the Assembly, as reflected in their budget," LaHood said.

If you live in California, now is a critical time for you to contact your state Senator and Representative at their Sacramento offices. Remind them that building high-speed rail saves the state a lot of money over the next few decades and continues California's forward-thinking leadership of the nation in the 21st century. Use our quick and easy tool to send an email to your legislators, revising it as you see fit, then follow up with a phone call. Call the Capitol Switchboard at (916) 322-9900 and ask for your Senator's office, then call back and ask for your Representative's office.