Have Term Limits Hurt High Speed Rail?

Feb 9th, 2014 | Posted by

Lapsed blogger turned political writer David Dayen has a good article up at Politico this weekend on high speed rail as Jerry Brown’s legacy. When David called me to talk about the article we initially focused on the Sierra Club, Republican obstruction in Congress, and the long-term fortunes of the project. Brown was only part of our discussion.

But I’m not surprised that the final article focused on the governor. In fact, it makes perfect sense to do so. Jerry Brown has become the most prominent and most important champion of high speed rail in California. Criticism of the project doesn’t make him flinch, and he’s not the type to run and hide from something he likes just because some of his critics want to use it as a weapon. Since taking office Brown has reshaped the California High Speed Rail Authority board, acted to cut costs, helped the Authority address some of the organizational challenges it faced, and lately has been working to help fill the funding gap created by Tea Party Republicans, including those from the Central Valley.

And yet Brown is not blazing a new trail. Before Brown became the leading champion of HSR in California that job was held by his predecessor as governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold’s support for HSR wasn’t always unwavering, but he was committed to the project. He got it onto the 2008 ballot and helped it navigate some treacherous waters in 2009-10. He worked with the Obama Administration to get as much federal funding as possible, and to get the project under way as quickly as possible.

What struck me about the Politico article was the absence of not only Schwarzenegger, but of state legislators and other organizational actors. Dayen was merely reflecting reality of Jerry Brown as the project champion, with the Legislature increasingly AWOL and the environmental community facing bizarre divisions over whether to embrace one of the greenest things this state has ever seen. Brown is so centrally identified with this project because unlike so many others in Sacramento, he still has a vision for this state’s future, and unlike many legislators, is not focused on the short-term.

Jerry Brown was the one who brought HSR to California 30 years ago. But it was the state legislature that revived it in the late 1990s after they had killed Brown’s plans in 1983. To understand why Brown is so central to HSR, we need to understand why the Legislature isn’t.

In 1996 Senators Quentin Kopp and Jim Costa introduced SB 1420, the High-Speed Rail Act. SB 1420 created the California High Speed Rail Authority with a four-year mandate to prepare a plan to build and operate high speed rail in California. Kopp and Costa appear to have intended for a funding plan to be placed before voters at the November 2000 election (where it surely would have passed, god what a missed opportunity that was). The bill passed both houses by wide margins – 30 to 4 in the Senate, 56-13 in the Assembly (where, ironically, future CHSRA Board chair Curt Pringle voted no).

In a Legislature without term limits, Kopp and Costa could have stayed in Sacramento a long time, helping to shepherd the project to completion, using their power and seniority to navigate whatever inevitable challenges were thrown its way. As it turned out, they were both able to do that, but not as State Senators. Senator Kopp became Judge Kopp, and then became chair of the CHSRA board. Senator Costa became Congressman Costa, and in Congress he was able to leverage his votes into federal dollars for HSR once Democrats reclaimed the White House and Congress in 2008. He’s still there, but in a House with a Tea Party majority, his ability to help the project is again limited.

New Senators were elected to replace those termed out starting in 1996, when Prop 140 took effect. Some of them turned out to be big backers of HSR. But none of them had been the ones to author SB 1420 or play big roles in getting it passed. In a term limited legislature, HSR got defenders and advocates through luck, not through tenure or experience. And when HSR did get those legislators, it was ephemeral.

A case in point is Fiona Ma. In 2008 she was crucial to getting the high speed rail bonds placed on the ballot. With fellow Assemblymember Cathleen Galgiani, she authored AB 3034 to answer criticisms from the Sierra Club and from Republicans, ensuring the project went before voters in a year that had seen record highs in gas prices. Fiona traveled the state stumping for the project and Prop 1A.

Since then, however, she has of necessity had to focus on her political career. She took on leadership positions in the Assembly, meaning she didn’t have as much time to focus on HSR. Elected in 2006, Ma knew she was going to be termed out in 2012. Like every other legislator, she had to find a new office. She ultimately settled on the Board of Equalization, where Betty Yee was being termed out of District 2. Ma is currently a candidate for that seat and likely to win it.

None of this is meant as a criticism of Ma. She was and remains a friend to the HSR project. But the political realities of a term limited legislature meant that she just couldn’t stay focused on it. And if she does get elected to the Board of Equalization, she won’t be in the Legislature to help it survive.

In 2012 Assemblymember Galgiani became Senator Galgiani, and she remains a backer of HSR. But she too is term limited and will be out of office in 2020. Fresno Assemblymember Henry T. Perea is a big HSR backer. But he was elected in 2010 and will be termed out of office just two years from now.

Term limits have gutted the Legislature’s ability to focus on the long term. In the 1950s and 1960s legislators did big things, creating a State Water Project, expanding higher education, creating Medi-Cal years before Medicaid and Medicare, and building freeways. They were able to defend these achievements during later struggles, particularly when Ronald Reagan was elected governor, in part because they were now politically and emotionally invested in them and wanted to ensure they survived.

For most legislators today, HSR is just another project at best. At worst it competes for some short-term priority they’d like to fund in order to use as a pole to vault them into another office. For every Galgiani and Perea are legislators who are inclined to like HSR and support it, but for whom it’s just not as high a priority. They weren’t there to create it, and won’t be there when it’s finished. Why should they care? (We can come up with numerous answers, but that’s a rhetorical queston.)

Voters finally reformed the term limits process in 2012, passing Prop 28. Legislators will now have 12 years total to serve, and they can split that between the Assembly and Senate however they like. But, and here’s the catch, anyone serving in the Legislature in 2012 when Prop 28 was passed are not eligible to enjoy its benefits. It’s not an ideal fix, but it was the one that the polls showed could pass.

Perhaps Prop 28 will allow a new generation of elected officials to have more time in the Legislature and, one hopes, to begin working on the long-term solutions to California’s many challenges. The short-term crisis of the late ’00s has passed, but those deeper issues remain. With more time in office, hopefully legislators will be more interested in shepherding long-term projects through.

There’s reason for hope. Prop 140, the proposition put on the November 1990 ballot by Southern California conservatives in hopes of finally removing Speaker Willie Brown from power, exempted anyone who had previously served as governor. They could come back and run for more terms if they wanted to. It’s a provision that Jerry Brown took advantage of in 2010 and will use again this year.

In short, the lack of term limits is what allows Jerry Brown to even have the chance at making HSR his legacy.

  1. Alon Levy
    Feb 9th, 2014 at 21:53

    In New York, good government people generally praise the term limit law. They do not view the pre-term limits City Council as focused on the long term, but as entrenched Clay Davis-like power brokers. Bloomberg’s third term ended up helping the city by keeping Quinn and Weiner out – de Blasio would not have primaried a sitting Quinn and won – but having a Bloomberg who is capable of throwing his weight around like that is bad for the city’s democratic process.

    Also? Schwarzenegger got 1A on the ballot in 2008, if what you mean is “he delayed it from 2004 to 2006 and then 2008.”

    Eric Reply:

    Didn’t Weiner keep himself out? Or more accurately, wasn’t Weiner kept out by his weiner having been out?

    Drunk Engineer Reply:

    It wasn’t long ago that Robert said term limits were good for CA HSR. So apparently, term limits are bad — except when they aren’t.

    synonymouse Reply:

    It is a party line thing.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Yes, but this scandal only came out after the 2009 election. If Bloomberg hadn’t run again, Quinn and Weiner would’ve run in the primary and the Weiner scandal would’ve happened in office (or not in office, if Quinn had won).

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Good government nannies don’t decide on who gets to run and who gets to vote. If you don’t like who is office there’s a remedy for that. Happens every election day.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Term limits are useless.

    A power-mad type can always get ’em repealed, or appoint a “mini-me” like Putin did with Mededev. They only hamper decent people.

    Nathanael Reply:

    (On the other hand, proportional representation is helpful, as the Australian Senate shows.)

    Nathanael Reply:

    (Also Scotland. And Cambridge, MA.)

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    How many wives of Southern governors have been elected to the governor’s office?

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Hand-picking a successor is bad, but consider the alternative. PRI-era Mexico was better-governed than Latin American countries where the president could stay in power indefinitely rather than having only six years to steal money.

  2. James
    Feb 10th, 2014 at 06:27

    You wrote “In short, the lack of term limits is what allows Jerry Brown to even have the chance at making HSR his legacy.”

    I thought the governor also had term limits? He can’t serve more than two consecutive terms, so in 2018 we will need to elect someone else for governor (unless Brown loses this year)?

  3. therealist
    Feb 10th, 2014 at 07:32

    The cash is not there, and the whole plan is fatally flawed………

  4. John Bacon
    Feb 10th, 2014 at 08:08

    The state’s option to issue interest income exempt bonds the fnancial market will accept with remarkably low interest rates encourages the current generation, ordinary citizens as well as legislators, to vote for long term expensive projects. Near term benefits such as job creation, land speculation, and construction firm profits rather than long term project viability often seems to be the dominate shape of many current transit projects. A shear lack of understanding of the factors that enable some transit networks to succeed in spite of strong automobile competition, home electronic entertainment and air-conditioning taking away late-evening public activities, plus high transit operator compensation. Encouraging high rise development next to or over stations with open-cut alignments and operating with short headways made affordable with driverless operation, would help. Thorough integration between transit networks might produce a self-supporting operation SF Bay Area rail transit network.The present generation of rail-transit-advocate appear to prefer internecine warfare over track gauge rather than solving network integration problems.

  5. joe
    Feb 10th, 2014 at 08:50

    “The present generation of rail-transit-advocate appear to prefer internecine warfare over track gauge rather than solving network integration problems.”


    Also, they forget that funding comes with many conditions and restrictions and reasonable assurances of success. “Why doesn’t the authority spend money on my perfect plan” presupposes the funding is fungible. It isn’t.

    CA proposed the CV for several reasons at the time they had to offer a proposal. CA was successfully selected for billions in funding. That’s a victory not a defeat because some advocates have far better plans which are not compliant.

    John Bacon Reply:

    @ Joe
    The rules of the game at this point: Start in the CV and produce a CHSR IOS ASAP that has the best chance for operational break-even. How? Design the San Joaquin portion of an IOS for all-stop-service only. Special sound walls and grade separations would not be mandatory. Slow sections on the present railway right-of-ways near central Bakersfield and Fresno would not degrade local service average speed near stops. (When building a through route from LA to SF a faster cheaper parallel route along I-5 for express trains not stopping in the CV should then be built.) Partly with the money saved with a low-cost CV alignment a mostly 220 mph single-track connection between Fresno and San Jose in order to combine with Caltrain’s electrified route to San Francisco should be the next construction effort. (Note: A 220 mph train has enough momentumm to climb 1,617 feet which is sufficient to roll over the 1,000 feet above the surrounding plane Pacheco Pass without the need for a tunnel.) Conversion of BART’s Millbrae to SFO direct connection to CHSR’s track gauge would enable CHSR trains to be split at Millbrae in order to provide one-seat rides between SFO and the CV. CHSR IOS trains should stop at 40% of SF Peninsula stations in order to provide 7/14 Caltrain express and the same frequency CHSR service between the CV and SF on CHSR rolling stock. As traffic increases and the cost of Caltrain runs decline as driverless Caltrin runs are developed the optimal number of expess trains will increase and the number of stops for each express run will decline. There are obviously far more opportunities for economic colaborations between CHSR, Caltrain, and BART than has been mentioned here.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    In other words let the peons in the Central Valley get the same service they are getting now.

    Mac Reply:

    Joe, you mention “San Joaquin portion of an IOS” with all stop service. Does this portion connect Bakersfield to Palmdale and/or the LA Basin? :-)

  6. Keith Saggers
    Feb 10th, 2014 at 09:13

    California’s Five-Year Infrastructure Plan 2014
    High Speed Rail
    Proposal: The Plan assumes $25.6 billion will be available from various funds including federal funds, Cap and Trade funds, Prop 1A bond funds, and other sources to help accomplish the Authority’s goals over the next five years

    Keith Saggers Reply:

    Existing Facilities: In November 2008, the passage of Proposition 1A, the Safe, Reliable, High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century, provided the Authority with $9 billion for the development of a high-speed train system. In addition, the federal government has awarded the Authority $3.5 billion, targeted mostly for the development of the Central Valley section of the rail project. From these sources, the 2012 Budget Act provided $5.8 billion for the acquisition of approximately 1,100 parcels and construction of a 130-mile section of the high-speed train system that would extend from Madera to the northern outskirts of Bakersfield. The Authority is in the process of acquiring the real property and right-of-way access needed for this section. Development of the full system will include acquisition, environmental impact mitigation efforts, rail and utility relocation, development of signals and communications infrastructure, earthwork, grade separations, track construction, systems and controls, electrification, support buildings, stations, and rolling stock.

    Keith Saggers Reply:

    The High-Speed Rail Authority is responsible for the development and construction of high-speed passenger train service between San Francisco and Los Angeles/Anaheim (Phase I), with extensions to San Diego and Sacramento and points in between (Phase II). In addition to 800 miles of rail line, the system will include 26 stations; 150 miles of bridges, viaducts, and elevated structures; 35 miles of tunnels; 610 grade separations; and 510,000 square yards of retaining walls. The Authority presented a Business Plan in 2012 that describes how and when the system will be completed, and serves as the basis for the Authority’s proposal. An updated Business Plan is expected in spring 2014

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    What is a URL?
    I enjoy cutting and pasting.

  7. synonymouse
    Feb 10th, 2014 at 09:54

    Term limits for the House of Representatives in DC. Re-cycle the Pelosi’s.

    I call it a beneficial derivative of the Black Death principle wherein some suggest getting rid of one-third of Europe’s population helped to bring about the Renaissance be creating job openings for the more talented and motivated.

    The Cheerleaders are ignoring the Willie B. Bayconic Bridge story. Kron-tv reports the bill for it at around six and a half billion. This provides a real world multiplier for TehaVegaSkyRail.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Term limits violate my right to vote for any one I want to.

    jimsf Reply:


    synonymouse Reply:

    age limits
    citizenship requirements
    residency requirements
    prior criminal record
    political affiliation aka “terrorist”
    literacy or special training requirements

    You don’t like term limits but won’t let me legally vote for my hamster or the Ayatollah for Prez?

    Or in the immortal words of Bluto “There goes 8 years of college!”

    Joe Reply:

    I did not know that Willie Brown was the same as a hamster.

    Why do conservatives have such a hard time seeing liberals as people?

    synonymouse Reply:

    You are libeling the good name and reputation of rodents everywhere with such an equation.

    joe Reply:

    Powerful African Americans drive you guys nuts.

    synonymouse Reply:

    You like paying $6.5 bil for a mediocre bridge replacement that is now quietly rusting. They could have repaired the existing one and saved billions.

    Corrupt morons like the two Browns are responsible for this ripoff and many others. Fortunately they are headed off to the second childhood.

    Drunk Engineer Reply:

    Read your US or state Constitution. There are many people who are not eligible for public office.

    Joe Reply:

    That’s a great reminder. None of those documents had term limits in them.

    They were never a part of our original intentions. Thank you very much.

    Amanda in the South Bay Reply:

    So, the 22nd Amendment is unconstitutional now? Saieth the constitutional scholar from Gilroy, center of the HSR universe!

    Joe Reply:

    No. But it is a bad idea to have lame duck presidents.

    It’s clearly a reaction to FDR as CA’s term limit a reaction to Mr Brown.

    The pattern is clear – better to take out powerful political leaders to advance the interests and influence of big money.

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    the Supreme Court had the final say (as always) and ruled against term limits not specifically in the Constitution for federal offices


    And it was the liberal wing that voted yes. Ahhh the irony

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    It almost always Republcans who are for term limits. Nanny-statism yet again.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Republicans like Giuliani?

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Herr Rudy is anomalous in many ways.


    Reedman Reply:

    The new mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan (who Obama just met with face-to-face) won the non-partisan mayoral primary as a write-in candidate, with 46% of the primary vote. Democracy has a lot of latitude in allowing citizens to be elected.

  8. Keith Saggers
    Feb 10th, 2014 at 16:22

    Brown signed the first bill authorizing a study of high-speed rail in 1982, recognizing the technology’s potential after seeing the successful Shinkansen trains in Japan. At the time, the far-flung concept fit with the “Governor Moonbeam” label, a stinging sobriquet first bestowed on him by Chicago pundit Mike Royko. (Though Brown would be quick to point out that the radical concept that earned him the moniker, launching a state emergency communications satellite, actually came to pass.) But at the heart of Brown’s proposal was a practical solution to address the problem of how to get people where they needed to go

    Read more: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/02/jerry-brown-california-high-speed-train-103266.html#ixzz2sy6E3skl

    jonathan Reply:

    Ketih, I already posted a link to that article, in Robert’s previous blog entry.

  9. JB in PA
    Feb 10th, 2014 at 17:43

    Nothing special about California?


    James in PA Reply:

    Similar climates in South Africa, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, France, and Spain. All the west coast in the northern hemisphere and east coast in the southern hemisphere.

    James in PA Reply:

    Sorry, forgot Portugal.

  10. trentbridge
    Feb 10th, 2014 at 18:13

    “SACRAMENTO – State Controller John Chiang today released his monthly report covering California’s cash balance, receipts and disbursements in January 2014. Revenues for the month totaled $12.2 billion, surpassing estimates in the 2014-15 Governor’s Budget by $387.7 million, or 3.3 percent.

    Now we can have our HSR train and still fund everything else in the budget! Let’s end this nonsense that California can’t afford to start the project this year.

    (And historically no-one Republican or Democrat – has required any multi-year project to fund it’s ENTIRE estimated cost before beginning construction.)

    synonymouse Reply:

    cut the internet sales tax

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    all in the democrats hands. As people on this blog are so fond of saying, the GOP is a fringe party in CA with no power to stop or even slow down the Dems.

    So go for it.

    PS. It was HSR supporters (not opponents) who wrote the law requiring identification of funds for usable segments. Once again, you are mad at the wrong people, it was not the GOP. It was all the Democrats that Robert speaks of so lovingly in this blog post.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    the usable segment isn’t the initial operating segment.

    Resident Reply:

    what is it then, can you point us to where the usable segment is defined in the 2014 business plan?

    joe Reply:

    Why bother?

    The only place a useable segment definition required is in the Prop1a mandated Funding Plan preceding an Appropriation vote.

    And John wants to bait and tempt the democratic party to performing symbolic deeds and actions.

    Maybe we can get a big foam finger for him and there GOP to wave before every vote – like fans do during a free-throw.

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    Symbolic..I think not. Even if supporters win the court case (and I don’t think they will), the train is 20+ billon short of funding the IOS. Regardless of the lawsuits, at some point Jerry has to convince the legislature to spend that 20 billon over the course of the next 7 years. Play all the word games you want, the IOS is the minimum needed to convince the public we should spend the other 40-50 billon. It’s got to get built and it has to work and be useful, or HSR will die. It’s that simple.

    The 1/4 billon in cap and trade is no where near enough

    So like it or not, the Dems have to cough up the dough. Should be easy since they are not inhibited by the party of No and they make only rational choices on the democrat side right???

    Zorro Reply:

    So you think the 1/4 billon in cap and trade is all that there will be? That’s been stated that 1/4 billon in cap and trade is just for 2014, amounts for 2015-2020 are currently unknown, unless you have access to a time machine.

    Joe Reply:

    Cap and trade should bring in billions.

    Most California’s wouldn’t know an IOS if it bit them.

    People know it will take time to build and they know it’s long term benefit.

    They know highways always congestion in a few years and trains don’t.

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    If cap and trade will bring billions why not sell a revenue bond now and give the money to HSR? Or at least pledge long term support past 2014? It may or may not bring in billions, but given the controversy of giving them a quarter billon, they are not getting substantially more a year and 1/4 B is not nearly enough

    WHERE IS THE MONEY? The Dems have 100% control! a court case was decided against them because of it, yet they still won’t commit funds. Why do you think that is?

    Alon Levy Reply:

    “Amounts currently unknown” = “we’re building a fifth of a line with no real idea where the other four-fifths will come from.”

    The alternative is that they know and aren’t telling the voters.

  11. Resident
    Feb 10th, 2014 at 20:59

    I see two entities filed request to submit amicus curiae briefs. One of them was a collection of Bay Area transportation agencies – and curiously – those are public bodies, with public meeting laws. Those boards took votes to join the filing presumably… Did they each follow laws about published agendas, rights to public comment, etc, before voting? I don’t see this in any of the agenda’s I’ve looked at so far… They were able to move in unison uncommonly fast with an uncommon level of rubber stamping for that legal filling. Curious…

    Also, interesting effect should the courts grant these requests – I believe that triggers a response period allowed for the other side. – further delay delay delay…

    Morris, any idea where we can see the actual documents that have been filed today – the AGs response to the Tos arguments, and the amicus filings?

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