HSR Opponents Running Out of Options to Stop Project
Last week’s State Senate vote to release the voter-approved high speed rail bonds appears to have been a significant political watershed for the project, at least in California. As Mike Rosenberg points out at the San Jose Mercury News, the opponents of high speed rail are facing fewer and less effective options to block the project after their primary strategy ended in failure:
“The legislative aspect is over, we lost that round. So now it’s going to be the litigated phase,” said state Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, who led the charge against the project in the Senate. “I don’t think there’s a complete ‘give-up’ view yet out there, but it does look tougher.”
Two opponents said for the first time Tuesday they are close to reaching settlements with the state: Union Pacific, which for years threatened to stall the project by withholding pivotal rail property along the bullet train route, said it hopes to have a deal with the rail authority “finalized soon.” And Peninsula opponents said they’re close to settling a four-year court battle over the rail line.
Even proponents of an initiative to put the project back on the ballot are now conceding their effort is likely to fail.
Other lawsuits remain, including a contentious suit filed by Kings County and agricultural interests, alongside Peninsula NIMBYs, claiming that the revised business plan violates Proposition 1A. However, opponents are losing confidence in this legal strategy as well, with even the deeply anti-rail Gary Patton acknowledging that they’re not likely to win in court:
“If the Legislature doesn’t have the guts (to kill the project) than we better make sure the court system will carry that forward,” said Aaron Fukuda, a community leader in Kings County, ground zero for opposition in the Central Valley. “We’re committed to the very bitter end.”
Still, even Patton acknowledged that judges typically side with the state on big projects. And Stuart Flashman — the attorney for Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton, which have been battling the project in court since 2008 — said he’s “keeping his fingers crossed” for a settlement that would allow construction to move forward on a two-track project to electrify the Caltrain line between San Francisco and San Jose — instead of four tracks. That could pave the way for Bay Area high-speed rail service next decade.
What I take from all this is that the best shot these anti-rail forces had was in the State Senate. With Senator Alan Lowenthal taking the lead in organizing anti-HSR forces to block release of the bond funds, a strategy was carried out in recent years to undermine public support for the project and sow enough doubt in the minds of Senators that the project could die on the Senate floor.
As we know, that didn’t happen. Democratic support for the project remained strong enough to achieve passage. President Barack Obama, Governor Jerry Brown, California’s Congressional delegation and the legislators themselves, led by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Speaker John A. Pérez, refused to take their eyes off the ball. They never forgot the purposes of the project: save Californians money by reducing dependence on oil, create desperately needed jobs, actually do something to reduce carbon emissions rather than just talk about it, and invest in modern transportation infrastructure.
HSR critics will not have an easy rallying point going forward. It’s very difficult to motivate people to take action around a court case. Construction will begin soon and opposition energy will begin to dissipate accordingly, though it will never vanish entirely.
But we can’t get carried away. We may have won this battle but we can still easily lose the war. Attention should now shift to Congress, where the future of California’s high speed rail system will be decided. House Republicans remain vehemently opposed to the project, vowing to kill it by any means necessary. Mitt Romney and Senate Republicans would happily join them in blocking future rail funds if given the chance. Since California high speed rail depends on future federal funding, it’s now clear that the next hurdle for the project to overcome isn’t in the courts and it isn’t in Sacramento – it’s at the nation’s ballot boxes this November.