2012: The Year That Saved California High Speed Rail
This time last year, it wasn’t clear what would happen to high speed rail in the state legislature. The vote to release the voter-approved bonds was coming, and HSR opponents in Sacramento and around the state were working hard to block it and stop the project. By late June, we began to worry that HSR opponents just might have the votes to stop HSR.
But they failed. And the California high speed rail project survived.
Governor Jerry Brown signs the bill releasing the voter-approved high speed rail funds in July 2012 – photo from the Governor’s Office
By a vote of 21-16, the State Senate approved high speed rail funding on July 6. It was the last political hurdle to clear before construction could begin.
Looking back on 2012, that vote was the most important HSR-related story of the year. Before the vote, the media was full of doom and gloom about the project, as calls to abandon it increased even as gas prices rose, reminding Californians of the value of electrified intercity rail.
Since then, high speed rail has gone from being a possibility to a certainty. You don’t hear many people saying we should abandon HSR anymore, at least not in Sacramento. The two leading HSR opponents, Joe Simitian and Alan Lowenthal, have been termed out of the legislature. Democrats now hold a 2/3 majority in both houses, so even if their caucus is not completely united behind HSR, they still have enough votes to continue passing HSR legislation. Stalwart HSR backers such as Cathleen Galgiani and Julia Brownley prevailed in close races for higher office, with Galgiani moving up to the State Senate, giving the project even more protection in the state capitol.
California HSR also prevailed in the courts in 2012. The lawsuit brought by several San Joaquin Valley farm bureaus appeared to be a loser as Judge Tim Frawley denied a restraining order and said he was “leaning toward ruling in favor of the state” when the full lawsuit is heard at trial on April 19. Since then, HSR opponents have been scrambling for a new legal strategy in hopes of somehow stopping the inevitable commencement of construction. Their final hope is a lawsuit accusing the California High Speed Rail Authority of violating Prop 1A by constructing the project in phases. But that suit doesn’t look promising for opponents either.
At the end of 2012, it seems clear that within California, at least, high speed rail’s position is strong. It was endorsed by voters at the November 2008 election, and weathered four subsequent years of criticism and attack. Once construction begins, either later in 2013 or in early 2014, most Californians will conclude HSR is a truly done deal and move on to other topics.
In Washington DC, however, threats to future phases of HSR construction remain. Republicans remain in control of the US House of Representatives and continue to try to defund HSR, led by Central Valley Republicans Jeff Denham and Kevin McCarthy. Their efforts to take away money and jobs from the Valley has met with strong denunciations from local newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee and the Bakersfield Californian.
Who knows what will happen with HSR in Congress. We may not see new federal funding until 2015, making it even more important for California to consider how to go it alone – and SPUR proposed ideas to do exactly that back in July.
HSR’s struggles in Congress should not be seen as a sign the project is flawed. Rather, it’s Congress itself that is a totally dysfunctional institution, as the absurd jockeying over the so-called “fiscal cliff” makes clear. Congress can no longer effectively govern this country or pass good legislation no matter the issue. HSR is merely falling victim to the same flawed processes that are affecting everything else in American life. It’s unlikely that HSR will fare better in Congress until the institution itself is fixed. And sadly, that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.
Despite those ongoing problems, 2012 will be remembered as they year that saved California high speed rail. The project survived the numerous attacks thrown at it. HSR is coming to California, that much is now a certainty. The details still matter, and this blog and rail advocates across the state will continue to pay close attention to them, as we have for nearly five years.
Tomorrow we’ll take a look at what 2013 has in store for HSR. A hint: the new Democratic supermajority will be key.