High speed rail in California was virtually dead, but California Governor, Jerry Brown brought it back from the brink. How did he do it?
I joined BBC Business Matters recently to discuss how Brown gained support for this controversial multibillion dollar project. Despite lawsuits, funding shortages and vocal opposition, the California High Speed Rail Authority began construction in January this year. Here’s a transcript of our conversation (@32:20).
BBC Host, Dominic Laurie: Why aren’t Americans so convinced about high speed rail?
Alison van Diggelen: I think they love their motor cars, or their electric cars now. But (CA Governor) Jerry Brown is a huge advocate for train travel and they are moving ahead. They have already broken ground on the high speed train between San Francisco and LA. That is moving ahead, despite a lot of opposition.
Laurie: So that’s going to happen finally? It’s been talked about for years hasn’t it?
van Diggelen: It still faces a lot of opposition, but they have broken ground and they’re doing it in sections.
Laurie: Why the change? Why have they started to believe in that?
van Diggelen: Jerry Brown has really pushed it. He’s put his strong political backing behind it. I said one time when I interviewed him, “How can we afford it?” (California was seriously in debt at the time)
And he said, “How could the French build the Cathedral of Chartres?” (In other words) we have to invest in the long term. He’s a very eloquent, powerful speaker and he’s managed to get support for this.
Despite fierce opposition and vast funding shortfalls, Jerry Brown continues to fight hard for HSR. He’s focused on the enormous environmental benefits of the finished product: 10 million fewer miles of vehicle travel every day in California by 2040; at least 80 fewer flights a day; and a big reduction in greenhouse emissions. He also hopes to use some of the $1Billion the state has secured in greenhouse gas fees. Of course, he’s also thinking of his legacy, and he just loves using big words to ridicule his anti-HSR foes. Words like “pusillanimous.”
Here’s some great commentary from the Fresno Bee.
During their speeches, Brown and other dignitaries took swipes at rail foes while touting the project’s benefits. “Everything big runs into opposition,” Brown said, citing the California Water Project, the Golden Gate Bridge and BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). “People do get pusillanimous. That’s the adjective I’m going to affix to all the critics. … It means weak of spirit.”
“You’ll always have critics (say), ‘Why spend the money?’ ” he added later. “My inclination is not to spend anything. But on the other hand, I like trains. I like clean air. I like to protect as much of the land as we possibly can. And I like to enjoy the comfort of trains.”
Brown said the estimated $68 billion cost for the complete 520-mile Phase 1 bullet-train system between Los Angeles and San Francisco is relatively small compared to California’s economic power. “California generates over $2 trillion a year. … All this is is $68 billion of that” for a system with a 100-year lifetime, he said. “It’s not that expensive. We can afford it. In fact, we cannot afford to not do it as we look at building a future that really works.”
One final thought: Wouldn’t you love to hear a conversation between Brown and another train advocate with a penchant for sesquipedalian words, London’s Boris Johnson?