By Noel T. Braymer
While Governor Brown has his share of political enemies, he has been on a winning streak over the last 6 years as California Governor. Much of his opposition has been from a small but loud group of very partisan ultra-conservative Republicans. Opposition to rail service was triggered after 2008 in large part because then newly elected President Obama supported increased spending for rail service to stimulate the economy after the economic meltdown when the housing bubble popped in 2008. During the George W. Bush administration the Federal High Speed Rail program enjoyed broad bipartisan support. For the next 8 years after 2008 partisan politicians were only interested in trying to make the Obama Administration a failure. There were no attempts to offer better alternatives from the opposition, they just want to oppose. When Governor Brown was elected in 2012 many people in his party urged him to drop the then troubled California High Speed Rail Project. After much thought he decided to make it a priority of his administration and get the project back on track. Ever since 2012 there has been a constant barrage from critics claiming High Speed Rail was a disaster ready to fail any day now. This sounds like the many false predictions by obscure religious sects about the end of the world coming soon. In both cases their predictions have been equally off the mark.
Recently after much political drama and horse trading, Governor Brown got a 2/3’s majority in the legislature to raise gasoline taxes which in current dollars are at a record low in buying power to raise money for badly needed transportation infrastructure repairs. He also recently got a 2/3’s majority to extend the Cap and Trade program to reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions. Cap and Trade is actually a Market approach to bring about positive change without new government regulations. It was first used in the early 1990’s with legislation signed by President George H.W. Bush to reduce mercury emissions into the atmosphere. It was very successful in removing mercury from the environment. The California Cap and Trade program to reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions will both clean the air and be a source of revenue for projects that will lower the State’s carbon footprint. This includes funding for California High Speed Rail. This money will be critical to build the Initial Operating Segment (IOS) of California’s High Speed Rail project which is now planned to open in 2025 between the Bay Area and southern San Joaquin Valley. This first leg of High Speed Rail is planned to operate at a profit and attract investors to build out the rest of the High Speed Rail system.
Even before the 2012 election of now Governor Brown, California had been a leader in cleaning its air and reducing Greenhouse Gas emissions under Republican Governor Schwarzenegger. There is more to doing this than just building High Speed Rail. Transportation is now the largest emitter of Greenhouse gas in California. Greenhouse Gas emission from electricity production is way down in part from expanded production of Wind and Solar power which is becoming cheaper than using fossil fuels. Reducing Greenhouse Gas emissions will require more low and zero emission transportation and reducing the amount of travel needed by people in their life. To accomplish this later goal California will have to build more new housing which is well served by public transportation as well as easily accessible to stores, jobs, services and schools by foot, bicycle and mobility devises. The problem with cars and more roads is as more roads are built, the more people drive and the more congested traffic becomes. Increasingly we will see urban life more like it was before the freeway building boom of the 1950’s and 60’s,
So what is rail’s role in California’s effort to reduce Green House Gases? In the case of High Speed Rail it will provide a high level of travel capacity with zero emission travel along most of the major population centers in the State. This will transfer passengers now using local short haul flights in the State to a cleaner and more fuel efficient High Speed Rail service. With fewer short haul flights more flight slots will be available to the airlines for longer distance and more profitable flights. A major role for High Speed Rail is stimulating the local economies of the towns with High Speed Rail stations. People in the San Joaquin Valley have already seen reduced unemployment since construction began in the San Joaquin Valley. There is already talk of the San Joaquin Valley becoming bedroom communities for employees working in the Silicon Valley who are having trouble finding good and economical housing in the San Francisco Bay Area. Critical to the success of High Speed Rail and cleaner air will be connections to it with regional rail services and transit to serve almost all of the population centers in California. These transportation services will also see improvements to run even cleaner than they do now.
Naturally California High Speed Rail is still years away from completion and still have challenges ahead. But despite all the hysteria by professional naysayers that the California High Speed Rail Project will the biggest catastrophe since the seven plagues of Egypt, the project is doing better than many major projects. In terms of being on budget and delivered on time, it is doing much better than many weapon systems or health care service paid for with taxpayers money. As more construction is finished the chances that the Initial Operating Segment will be up and running in about 8 years greatly improves. Despite the critics, around much of the world, High Speed Rail service is growing and is a valuable, economical and popular form of transportation. Interest and support for High Speed Rail in California is also likely to increase world wide which sees California as a major partner with most of the rest of the world in cleaning the environment and reducing Greenhouse Gases on this planet.