2010: The Year Ahead In California HSR
On Tuesday we looked at the year in review – what we learned about HSR in 2009. Now, on the last day of the year, it’s time to look ahead to what are likely to be the main issues, stories, and events regarding California high speed rail in 2010.
Return of the HSR supporters. If 2009 was the year the status quo struck back, 2010 will be the year high speed rail supporters take their activism to a new level. Californians For High Speed Rail will relaunch early in the new year, providing a statewide organizing hub for project supporters. On the Peninsula, labor unions and business groups came together late this year to form the Alliance for Sustainable Transit and Jobs, in order to help mobilize the considerable yet so far overlooked support for HSR in San Mateo County. At the state level, three groups that are usually at each other’s throats – the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Labor Federation, and the Sierra Club of California – have joined forces to support HSR.
This activism is just getting underway. Coming into 2009 a lot of those groups knew that there would be continued support necessary for HSR, but may have underestimated the need for persistent advocacy and organizing work to ensure that a very small minority of people can’t overturn the will of the voters as determined by the passage of Prop 1A.
2010 will see public events, private lobbying, and ongoing organizing work to give voice to those voters and project supporters. It’s not going to be uncritical support of everything the CHSRA does, but it’s time that Californians were reminded of why they voted for HSR, and why it is a project that is absolutely necessary to our state’s economic, environmental, and energy future.
There’s work to be done in cities along the route, shoring up support in the state legislature, and ensuring long-term federal support from Congress. In 2010 HSR supporters will make their voices heard in all three locations.
Federal funding brings HSR to life. Prop 1A’s passage made the state, the nation, and even the world take notice that true HSR was finally coming to the United States, and that California’s long-planned project really was going to happen. But when the FRA announces its HSR stimulus funding awards in January, it will bring California HSR to life, showing state and local officials that yes, HSR will be built in California and yes, the federal government is committed to making it happen.
My own prediction is that California will get around $3.4 billion, to construct segments from Merced to Bakersfield and LA to Anaheim. I would be pleased but surprised if SF-San José was included.
The news will produce a new round of pro-HSR sentiment across the state, which will put wind in the sails of the renewed HSR support activism.
Project design decisions are made, and the real battles begin. Despite the intensity of some of the battles over HSR fought in 2009, those were moderated by the fact that all possibilities were still technically on the table. The Peninsula could still dream of a long tunnel serving every city in San Mateo County. In 2010, however, decisions will start being made about how exactly HSR will be built, and that’s when the truly contentious battles will begin. No matter route or grade separation method is chosen, someone will be upset, and some of them will take that anger to the courts to try and slow or stop the project, others will try and undermine the project in public.
It’s important that these decisions be made as transparently and as fairly as possible, with an eye to building an effective system that doesn’t break the budget. I’m sure I’ll personally disagree with some of these decisions myself, but I’ll act on those disagreements in a way that doesn’t undermine the project as a whole. Let’s hope others do as well.
The role of private investors will be a major issue. It only came up towards the end of the year in the new business plan, but Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s constant push to maximize private involvement in infrastructure will become a prominent issue in 2010 as it relates to high speed rail. Although the media framed the higher fares as a done deal, that’s more a function of most journalists in this state not really knowing what they’re talking about when it comes to high speed rail. HSR supporters will take issue with Schwarzenegger’s push to use a lot of private investment in the system, advocating for such investment to be capped at 25% of the overall construction cost and ensuring that any risk is borne by the investors and not by taxpayers (in other words, if California HSR somehow fails to generate revenue even though every single other HSR system has been able to do it, the investors shouldn’t get bailed out by you and me).
HSR becomes an issue in the gubernatorial race. California will finally get to wave goodbye to the Worst Governor Ever, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and elect his replacement. The Democratic Party will nominate former governor Jerry Brown (exempt from term limits, as are all governors still living who served before 1990), who in 1982 passed the state’s first high speed rail law, a project that was short-lived but included Quentin Kopp and Mehdi Morshed as important figures. Brown has become more centrist and even conservative in some ways over the last 30 years, but he should be a reliable supporter of the project.
It’s less clear where the Republican candidates – Meg Whitman, Steve Poizner, and Tom Campbell stand, but given their shared hostility to government spending, it seems likely that all of them will be HSR skeptics. Poizner, who is closest ideologically to the right-wingers at the Reason Foundation, is the most likely to embrace outright HSR denialism, and Whitman could embrace some of it as well if she felt it served her needs.
Jerry Brown would do well to show himself as a longtime champion of high speed rail, proving to a new generation of voters – people like myself who were born during his first time as our governor – that he has the vision to lead this state into a new era. In any case, I fully expect HSR to become an issue in the gubernatorial race, even if it’s not in the top 5.
The state legislature becomes more active on HSR. Whether this is a good thing remains to be seen, given how few legislators understand or care about HSR, and given that term limits have destroyed long-term thinking in the Capitol. But my guess is that the combination of the defenders of the status quo as well as HSR advocates will be putting enough pressure on legislators to ensure that the legislature takes a much closer look at the project.
Some of that will reveal itself in deeply hypocritical scolding from legislators – any legislator who chides the CHSRA about its finances should be laughed out of the room – but it will also reveal itself in legislation. I fully expect the concept of creating a “Department of Rail” to absorb the CHSRA to be revisited, along with other governance reforms.
It would be nice if legislators realized that they have a stake in helping ensure jobs come back to California and that HSR is one of the only things out there offering a large number of jobs, but I’m not yet holding my breath. Showing the legislature the stimulative value of HSR will be one of the main priorities of supporters in the new year.
Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments. Before you do, though, I want to thank all of you who read this blog, who comment on this blog, and who have helped make it a success for the second year in a row. Have a happy new year, everyone!