Arnold Schwarzenegger Promotes HSR – Will His Successors Do The Same?
Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a good governor on TV, although he has shown himself to be one of the worst governors of all time when it actually comes to policymaking. This is especially true of high speed rail. On TV he has often spoken glowingly of HSR and did so again on Meet The Press last month:
Look, this country need to rebuild itself. We are still living off the Eisenhower era and off the Roosevelt era when they built the thousands of bridges and the thousands of government buildings and the roads, the highway system and all of those things. What’s the new thing that we’re building? We haven’t built anything in decades. We need a high speed rail. We need new infrastructure. We need to think about it because we have countries like China and Europe that are very fast gaining on us and surpassing us. So we got to get our act together and really make this country kind of live in the 21st century, not be with the infrastructure in the 20th century.
And yet Arnold’s real legacy for HSR is much less golden. He continued to delay the vote for the $10 billion in HSR bonds well beyond the original 2004 date. That may have worked out to HSR’s benefit, since 2008 saw a gas price spike that proved the need for high speed trains and saw the election of a very pro-HSR president, but that wasn’t anything Arnold intended to happen. Instead he spent the intervening years attacking the CHSRA’s funding and putting the project in significant jeopardy.
Even today, with Prop 1A approved and the first federal funds having been awarded, it’s clear that Arnold Schwarzenegger has damaged HSR in some very important ways. The CHSRA’s lack of funding earlier on meant it never could do the kind of massive public outreach that could have ensured that some of the current problems over design and implementation were dealt with earlier on. While the claims of the NIMBYs that the CHSRA did no public outreach whatsoever on the project prior to 2009 are simply wrong, more ought to have been done, but without money the CHSRA couldn’t do it. Instead of fighting the governor and the legislature to keep the lights on in 2007, staff could have instead been out talking to residents, local governments, and potential HSR riders about the project.
Still, the CHSRA is working to overcome that handicap, and since 2008 Arnold has been more help than hindrance to the project. The question we now face here in 2010 is whether his successors will do the same.
Jerry Brown is likely to be the only Democrat running for governor in 2010, and as you all probably know, has been governor before (elected in 1974, reelected in 1978). Like all governors elected prior to 1990, he is exempt from term limits, so he can run for a third term. He has a history with high speed rail – during his governorship he was a strong supporter of HSR, despite opposition from some powerful state legislators. In 2003 Richard Trainor published an article on Brown’s HSR efforts, a fascinating if incomplete read. Brown, with the help of one Mehdi Morshed, rushed a bill through the legislature in late summer 1982 to create an HSR system with Japanese contractors, exempt from CEQA and Coastal Commission review.
1982 was Brown’s last year as governor. That year he ran for US Senate and lost to Pete Wilson. By 1983 anti-HSR forces, led by the Southern California Association of Governments, began attacking the HSR project. They tried to debunk the ridership studies using a “white paper” produced by the city of Tustin (my hometown – sorry!) and authored by Trainor. Soon thereafter, without support from Brown’s successor, Governor George Deukmejian, and with only weak support in the legislature, the HSR project collapsed.
Nearly 30 years later, California’s HSR project has not only been revived, but is stronger than ever. It has $10 billion in voter-approved bonds, over $2 billion in initial federal funding, and is very nearly finished with the full set of environmental reviews (when the CHSRA was created in 1996, the project was not exempted from CEQA). Initial construction is just two and a half years away.
Jerry Brown would be very well poised to come in and provide leadership and institutional support that the HSR project desperately needs. It’s likely that he would not only support it but would work to see it properly and effectively implemented. CHSRA might get new board members (Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed the majority of its present membership) or it could be folded into an executive branch department that Brown would oversee.
Brown isn’t an officially declared candidate yet, though he is definitely going to run for governor, so he hasn’t yet taken a position on the project. As Attorney General, his office has been supportive of the project, and backed the CHSRA’s controversial position on the Transbay Terminal project studies last September.
Brown is still espousing a vision of “elegant density” for California’s future, as he did 30 years ago, a vision that was never really implemented after the Reaganite turn politics took in the 1980s, but a vision that holds urban density and mass transit at its core. There is every reason to believe Brown will continue to support HSR today.
His likely November opponent is Meg Whitman, a Republican and a former eBay CEO. She appears to be a more openly right-wing version of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and seems to believe that advocating for higher unemployment is a winning campaign strategy. So far she has made no public statements on high speed rail, so guessing her position is going to be rather difficult. She wants to slash state spending, but then so did Arnold Schwarzenegger and he ultimately backed HSR. Whitman does not appear to be an anti-rail ideologue, but she does live in Atherton, and might well share some of the NIMBY attitudes of that city’s leadership. It’s possible she would continue Arnold’s support of the project, but it’s equally possible she wouldn’t. Definitely worth watching closely.
We have a clearer picture of where the other Republican candidate, Steve Poizner, stands: he opposes it:
Based on his remarks about our deficit and debt service I asked him for his opinion on the CHSRA High Speed bullet train especially in light of the fact that we have neglected our transportation infrastructure. Steve said he is a frequent flyer on Southwest Airlines and that all factors considered “he opposes the project.”
Thank god he isn’t likely to even make it out of the Republican primary – the last thing we need in government is someone who thinks that because Southwest has regular flights right now between SoCal and the Bay Area, we don’t need HSR. As we’ve repeatedly explained here, Southwest’s fares will rise along with everyone else’s in the coming years, and besides, door-to-door HSR is comparable in travel time to flying. In other heavily traveled air corridors, such as the Northeast Corridor or Madrid-Barcelona, HSR has been able to take as much as half the market share and generate profits in the process.
Poizner not only doesn’t understand that fact, he also is convinced that California has too much debt and that the answer is to delay the sale of authorized bonds, including Prop 1A. In short, he seems to be an HSR denier’s dream. Unfortunately for them, he isn’t likely to get anywhere near the governor’s office.
So the 2010 gubernatorial election will come down to Jerry Brown, a known and long-time HSR supporter, and Meg Whitman, whose views on the topic are totally unknown. I don’t know whether HSR will play a role in the campaign or not, but I believe it is to Brown’s benefit if it does. I’ll keep you all updated on how the gubernatorial race impacts HSR – and vice versa – between now and November.