What Does the 2014 Election Mean for HSR?

Nov 6th, 2014 | Posted by

Another year, another Democratic bloodbath outside of California. Democrats have lost control of the US Senate, meaning we’re right back to the late 1990s again in terms of DC politics.

As with 2010, California largely resisted the red tide. Jerry Brown was re-elected governor by at least a 19 point margin. Californians resoundingly rejected Neel Kashkari’s attempt to kill high speed rail, proving that California’s political consensus is indeed pro-HSR.

The red tide did come a bit higher on the California beach this year. In 2010, Democrats picked up some seats in Congress and the state legislature. In 2014, Democrats lost the legislative supermajority they won in 2012 – but they still have huge overall majorities in Sacramento.

One of the more stunning races, still too close to call, is in California’s 16th Congressional District. Jim Costa, a longtime rep and one of the key figures in bringing high speed rail to California, is trailing by 736 votes over a Republican who few expected had a chance of winning.

That Republican, Johnny Tacherra, ran as a clone of other Valley Republicans like Jeff Denham and Kevin McCarthy – opposed to Obamacare, opposed to immigration reform, opposed to new government spending. Tacherra also ran against high speed rail, though it doesn’t appear to have been as large a factor in his campaign as the other issues.

Costa’s troubles stem more from Democratic weakness than a voter revolt against high speed rail. President Barack Obama’s appalling decision to delay action to stop the deportations led to a dramatic collapse in turnout among Latino voters, a key part of Costa’s base. Even if Tacherra hadn’t mentioned HSR at all, Costa would have been in trouble. Still, it looks as if Costa may yet prevail.

So what does all this mean for high speed rail?

The loss of the US Senate doesn’t mean a whole lot for HSR, since the federal government wasn’t giving money for it anyway. Which in turn makes it more important that California develop more of its own sources of revenue to fund transit, since a GOP Congress can be expected to defund mass transit as much as possible. Amtrak, however, is in trouble.

The loss of the legislative supermajority in California shouldn’t hurt HSR, since budgets still require only a majority vote. But it does mean that it will be 2016 at the soonest when we see reforms to transportation funding in California. The supermajority failed to act to lower the threshold for passing transit taxes from 66.6%, and unless they find support for doing this in 2015, LA Metro will have to go back to voters in 2016 with the hope they get the 2/3 majority that narrowly eluded them in 2012.

That’s not to say the election was good for HSR. It doesn’t change the status quo, and so far, HSR has found a way to survive a hostile Congress. We shall see how much longer that can last.

Election Day 2014 Open Thread

Nov 4th, 2014 | Posted by

Still about 90 minutes left to vote in California, but expect to see the media call the governor’s race for Jerry Brown when the clock strikes 8. And that means Neel Kashkari’s hopes of riding fading anti-HSR sentiment to victory will go down in flames.

Regardless of what happens around the country, 2010 should still be a very good night for Democrats in California, which is good for HSR since Democrats are the party that favors HSR in the Golden State. HSR isn’t really a factor in any of the higher profile contests, though Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin’s longtime support of HSR forced Democrat Betty Yee to come out for the project. Democrats may lose their supermajority, but that should not hurt HSR, and Democrats will be in good shape to reclaim that supermajority in 2016.

Anyhow, use this as an open thread.

HSR Poll Numbers Continue to Improve

Nov 3rd, 2014 | Posted by

Ralph Vartabedian must have ordered a stiff drink when he saw the latest USC/LA Times polling on high speed rail:

Californians are slightly less inclined to want to halt the state’s high-speed rail project, according to the poll. When asked whether construction of California’s high-speed rail line should be allowed to go ahead or if it should be stopped, voters were nearly split. Forty-eight percent said the rail project should stop, while 44 percent said that it should proceed.

These results reflect a minor shift in sentiment from the September 2013 Poll, which showed that 52 percent of voters said the project should be stopped, as opposed to 43 percent who would want the project to go forward.

They may call it a “minor shift” but that looks to me like a five point swing toward HSR. The most recent PPIC poll to examine HSR, from March 2014, showed a majority of Californians still support the project. That’s a different question than the one USC/LA Times asked, but still, it’s no longer possible for Vartabedian to say a majority of voters want to stop the HSR project. As construction begins in earnest in the Central Valley, and as pro-HSR politicians get re-elected tomorrow by huge margins over people who smashed toy trains in TV ads, we can expect support for HSR to continue to increase.

We’ve already reached bottom in the polling, and that bottom was never very deep to begin with. Support for HSR has remained remarkably stable since 2008, with fluctuations of 5-7 percentage points since then. The USC/LA Times poll and the PPIC poll from earlier this year together make it clear that the trend is toward more support of HSR.

Californians are increasingly seeing HSR as a done deal. They’re moving on to other controversies and issues, and almost half of them still look forward to the day when they can take a bullet train from LA to SF in less than three hours. After all, how else are Dodger fans supposed to see a victory parade?!

California’s Pro-HSR Political Consensus

Oct 28th, 2014 | Posted by

There are two things that should come as no surprise to anyone reading this blog. First, Californians support high speed rail. Second, Ralph Vartabedian does not.

Vartabedian has a rather whiny article up at the LA Times today complaining that high speed rail is not a factor in this fall’s statewide election:

Neither Brown nor his Republican opponent, Neel Kashkari, has delved publicly into the details of high-speed rail, including the complex construction plan, looming technical challenges or possible funding shortfalls.

That lack of substantial dialogue reflects a broader inattention that some political analysts and engineering experts warn could have long-term consequences.

This is a remarkable article, basically Vartabedian complaining that nobody agrees with him that HSR is a ticking time bomb and then going out and finding a failed candidate for office this year, Dan Schnur, to agree with him.

Vartabedian has spent years trying to undermine the California HSR project, and here in 2014 it’s clear that his efforts have been a spectacular failure. Californians simply don’t agree with him that HSR is a bad idea. And as a result, most of their political leaders see no point in bashing a popular project.

The most recent poll to examine the HSR issue, PPIC’s March 2014 poll, found a majority of Californians support high speed rail. A few months later, the state legislature agreed to Governor Jerry Brown’s request to devote a sizable portion of cap-and-trade revenues to HSR. That looks to have settled matters in Sacramento, as HSR is no longer a theoretical project but an actual thing the state is building.

Of course, there are those who have tried to make HSR an issue in this year’s election. Republican candidate for governor Neel Kashkari has made attacking HSR part of his campaign, with his ads attacking the “crazy train” and showing him literally smashing a toy train. (Another Kashkari ad showed a kid drowning – what is it with Kashkari putting kids and their toys in danger?) But Kashkari is expected to lose the governor’s race by as much as 20 points. Clearly his attacks on HSR aren’t helping his cause.

In fact, the campaign has seen some candidates embrace HSR when they hadn’t done so before. Consider the case of Betty Yee. I’ve known and respected her since my days working in Monterey County politics, when she was a member of the State Board of Equalization. In the past, Yee has been critical of HSR. But she’s now running for Controller against Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who is a notable Republican supporter of HSR.

If HSR were politically toxic at the polls, you’d have expected Yee to double down on any criticisms of HSR. Instead, she put out a statement last Friday embracing HSR:

Voters statewide approved Proposition 1A in November 2008, the Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century. The Act authorizes the issuance of $9.95 billion of general obligation bonds for the project.

While supportive of the concept, I had opposed the project because of its governance and financing challenges. However, the direction of cap-and-trade funds to the project by Governor Brown has the great potential of attracting other sources of financing to move the project forward. Widening freeways and increasing air traffic are not sustainable responses from environmental and cost perspectives to the increased need to move people in this state.

I now support the high-speed rail project, and it should proceed as long as the financing meets all legal requirements, the project complies with all environmental laws, and local communities’ concerns are fully aired so that the project respects higher region and local priorities such as the dire water supply concerns affecting communities, families, and farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.

Welcome to the team, Betty Yee! Glad to have you on board.

It’s possible that Democrats may add to, maintain, or lose their supermajority in Sacramento. But that is largely dependent on Democratic turnout, which is anemic across the country this year. If Democrats did lose that supermajority, it’d be only by a seat or two, and HSR is not a factor in those races, most of which are in Southern California.

One sleeper race that could break for Democrats is the race for Congress in California’s 21st Congressional district. Democrat Amanda Renteria is making it a close race against David Valadao, who has been outspoken in his opposition to HSR. Renteria is more nuanced, but doesn’t outright oppose HSR, and thinks it would be a huge mistake for the Valley to turn its back on all those jobs.

So Vartabedian’s complaint isn’t with the candidates, but with the reality that Californians support HSR. His efforts to turn the public and the state government against the project have been a colossal failure.

Of course, the situation is different in Congress, where Bakersfield’s Kevin McCarthy continues to fight against HSR. He may soon have a Republican majority in the Senate to join him in his quixotic war against jobs for the Valley. But the Republican Congress’s opposition to HSR is not the death knell for California HSR that it once seemed. If California continues to support HSR, and if the Congress continues to oppose it, that will simply add momentum to the state’s efforts to chart its own course in building HSR. After all, the federal government has been AWOL on the drought and on climate change, and California is going its own way on those matters as well.

At some point you’d expect Vartabedian to accept reality and reconcile himself to the fact that HSR is getting built in part because Californians like it….