11/02/2011 04:52 pm ET Updated Jan 02, 2012

High-Speed Rail: Jerry Brown's Big Move to the Future

Today marks one year since Jerry Brown's election as California's new/renewed governor. (He's only been governor for 10 months.) Brown has been consumed in dealing with the state's systemic political dysfunction, but yesterday began an important move into the future. A move that, with Republican governors in other states balking, may lead to America's biggest action on the high-speed rail systems that Europe and Asia already enjoy.

The state's chronic budget crisis has been Brown's principal focus, with mixed results. He got big cuts through, but no tax extensions as the Republicans' anti-tax Taliban blocked even a public vote on the matter. Last week Brown issued a generally well-received public pension reform proposal, generating opposition principally from the public employee unions which largely run the Democratic Party in the legislature and backed Brown's election. (Having very closely monitored the labor-funded independent expenditure efforts on Brown's behalf, it occurs to me that labor, while quite helpful, may take too much credit for Brown's landslide victory over billionaire Meg Whitman.)

It's been daunting and, frankly, not exactly thrilling. Which made Wednesday's big move toward the future all the more worthy of comment.

In his now customary if uncharacteristic stealth mode, Brown wasn't around in person for the unveiling of the revamped business model for California's High-Speed Rail Authority (CHRSA) yesterday at the California Railroad Museum in Gold Rush era Old Sacramento, not far from the Western terminus of the Pony Express, but his thinking is all over the plan itself.

Leaving the talking up to CHRSA officials, including his new appointees, former BankAmerica vice chairman Mike Rossi and veteran transit executive Dan Richard, Brown had only this brief statement on the plan: "California's high-speed rail project will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, linking California's population centers and avoiding the huge problems of massive airport and highway expansion. The High-Speed Rail Authority's business plan is solid and lays the foundation for a 21st century transportation system."
Here"s a link to the plan.

The state has had a high-speed rail authority since 1996, but not much happened with it until then Governor Gray Davis signed a major bond act in 2002. After that then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger held the bond measure back for a less crowded election with a big turnout, which turned out to be the November 2008 ballot. Then the initiative, now Proposition 1A and managed by Brown friend David Townsend, won with 53% of the vote in the election which propelled Barack Obama into the White House.

Prop 1A provided $10 billion in general obligation bonds which the state can sell as it moves forward with its plan. Of that, $9 billion is for the new high-speed portions of the system and the remainder, actually $950 million for improving local rail lines connecting to the system.

Since then, with Schwarzenegger playing an aggressive role, California has gotten some $3.5 billion from the federal government to help build the system, with the proviso that it start in the Central Valley, where development costs are much lower but also where far fewer people live than along the coast. Right now, that is.

So with nearly $14 billion in finance, this is no pea-shooter operation. But its focus has been unclear.

Which has allowed critics to have a field day, talking of boondoggles and "a train to nowhere."

Far from a train to nowhere, the revamped plan calls for a phased approach to developing a statewide system, one which will take significantly longer to complete than the original target date of 2020, but will also provide value and run in the black as each component comes on line.

Last year, when I talked with CHRSA officials to try to make sense of the project, I kept coming back to what seemed logical, finding somewhere in the state with a demonstrable need where the system can be developed and shown to work. This plan appears to do that.

It's to begin in 2013 by building a high-speed rail line down the spine of the state, from Bakersfield at the south end of the great Central Valley to a point north of Fresno, a distance of some 130 miles through California's agricultural heartland, which is a growing population center. With that initial construction section, which will serve also as a practical demonstration of the technology -- which is already in widespread use in much of Europe and Asia -- completed, the next phases can also commence, either to the San Francisco Bay Area or to Los Angeles and Orange County. The plan would sidestep some NIMBY opposition in the San Francisco Bay Area and metro LA by utilizing existing rail lines. But that would also slow the trains to a certain degree.

After the system begins operation, and is shown to be functional, private finance can kick in. When those two phases are completed, a Bay to Basin system will be in effect, and additional feeder lines to Sacramento and San Diego can be brought online. (There's already well-used conventional rail service between Sacramento and the Bay Area and Fresno, and San Diego and LA.)

The Bay to Basin system, under this scenario, would not be complete until 2033, 13 years later than the original plan.

And the whole thing is now said to cost some $98 billion in inflated dollars, $65 billion in present day dollars, which is twice what the cost was said to be early this year. Much of the added cost is due to delaying final completion of the overall project until 2033, due to anticipated hurdles in gaining finance for each phase.

But it's only half what the cost would be to stick to the conventional path; i.e., to rely on more freeway construction and airport expansion.

California has a transportation system geared for 25 million people, but a population of 38 million. And by the middle of this century, the state's population is projected to hit 60 million, the equivalent of adding Texas. Or of adding New York-plus.

You'll note that $98 billion is a lot more than the roughly $14 billion in available finance. But the available finance is more than twice what it will cost to build the first big portion of the project down California's spine.

The big numbers are very daunting until you consider that this is not something to happen all at once. And as the report makes clear, that is of a piece with the history of truly game-changing infrastructure projects, here in California and elsewhere in the world.

The highway system here -- both the state highways and the interstate highway system -- took decades to build, as did the water system. The overall finance was nowhere near being in hand when each was begun.

That didn't stop people from building.

Building, as in construction, is one of the two keys to the plan's economic benefits. This will create an enormous number of construction jobs. And as the system comes online, it will aid the state's ongoing economic competitiveness, both in averting a growing gridlock and in fostering new synergies between regions.

Then there are the benefits in reducing greenhouse gases and other pollution.

Brown has been showing his visionary side on renewable energy, but that's seemed just a continuation of what Schwarzenegger did (to those who know no history) or just a continuation of what Brown has always pushed (to those who know about the solar '70s and early '80s).

But aside from his old wheelhouse, most of what Brown has been doing is dealing with dysfunction, a deep systemic political dysfunction. Today may have been the first day in which we saw something new with Brown that moves beyond the chronic crisis that marks California's capital.

Brown, of course, espoused high-speed rail the first time he was governor, being well aware of developments in Europe and Asia, but this is a far more dimensional exercise.

Jerry Brown was 36 when he was first elected California's governor. He would be 95 by the time bullet trains are making their way from between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Both his parents lived into their 90s, and his aunt passed away this year at 99.

So Brown is thinking long term. He's also thinking big, and "thinking different," as his old friend Steve Jobs had it. Making big bets on a better future, after all, is a tradition in California. So is being unconventional, something that often gets short shrift in a political culture that encourages and rewards mediocrity.

The reaction so far is mostly positive, though garnering the usual brickbats from the far right. With an interesting exception, as incoming state Senate Republican leader Bob Huff agreed with the need for new transit alternatives and praised the plan's realism.

"Improved transportation infrastructure is critical to our state's future," declared Huff in a statement. "Every demographic model shows the state's population continuing to grow, with no parallel investment to accommodate that growth in our transportation systems. High-Speed Rail is poised to fill a significant part of this need, but we must proceed with a good business plan built of accurate data and assumptions. This draft business plan appears to be a positive step in that direction to help frame the larger discussion about High-Speed Rail viability."

There may be hope yet for California's party of no.

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