07/11/2012 08:33 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2012

A Ticket to Ride: High-Speed Rail Moves Forward on a Historic (and Bumpy) Track in California

Last Friday's narrow passage of legislation authorizing the beginning of construction of the first high-speed rail system in America was a dramatic moment many years in the making. And while it was undertaken entirely by Democrats at the end, some famous Republican politicians made it happen along the way. In fact, it would never have happened without them.

Which makes the current version of the once Grand Old Party and its knee-jerk opposition to the project all the more ironic.

It's Governor Jerry Brown who gets the credit -- and takes the heat from conservatives, sizable elements of the media, and the old energy economy interests whose die-hard opposition naturally underlies the opposition -- for pushing the project over the political goal line. But had former Governor Pete Wilson (ironically, a longtime Brown bete noire) not gotten the ball rolling in 1996 with the creation of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, it might not have happened.

And had Brown's far more friendly predecessor, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, not supported the empowering initiative and pushed for ever more funding even as the economy sank into the great global recession, promoting high-speed rail through the very end of his term in January 2011, it would not have happened at all.

Brown joined U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood Monday at the Port of Oakland to announce a $15 million grant to expand its rail yard and especially to discuss the legislature's decision to begin construction of the high-speed rail project.

The plan is to begin construction in the winter, now that the release of funding -- a combination of already approved state bond funds and federal grants -- has been approved for that purpose.

LaHood hailed the decision as a landmark in U.S. transportation policy.

Brown, who loves the story, cited the example of Abraham Lincoln building the transcontinental railroad during the Civil War to make light of objections raised against the new project. (More about that later.)

Right-wing opponents of transit and advocates of the old energy economy have succeeded in blocking the Obama administration's plans to begin high-speed rail elsewhere in America. Only California, with first Schwarzenegger and then Brown in staunch and steely support for the past few years of a shaky economy, remained. Would America join most of the rest of the advanced industrial world in developing high-speed rail? Or would it stay stuck in the old energy economy model?

After taking office a year and a half ago, Brown retooled the state's troubled high-speed rail agency and had its business plan overhauled, then pushed it through the state legislature.

Brown's big victory on Friday afternoon came when the state Senate voted to authorize the beginning of construction of California's long-awaited and controversial high-speed rail system. The vote was 21 to 16.

The bill passed the Assembly on Thursday by a vote of 51 to 27. All Republicans in both houses were opposed, though some didn't show or vote in the Senate.

Four Democrats voted no. Three of them were always opponents of this project, though some in the state press corps don't seem to have understood that, with a couple tweeting their surprise about Silicon Valley Democrat Joe Simitian's no vote. He's only been attacking the project for years now, perhaps with an eye to NIMBY voters as he runs for county supervisor. Two of the other Democratic no votes joined to make up a trio of constant critics for the past several years.

The fourth, however, state Senator Fran Pavley, was on some level a surprise, as she is a staunch environmentalist and liberal who authored and co-authored the state's two landmark laws on greenhouse gas emissions. The first being the tailpipe emissions bill signed into law in 2002 by then Governor Gray Davis. The second, of course, being the overall climate change act, AB 32, signed into law in 2006 by Schwarzenegger.

But Pavley is running this year in a new district which is much more conservative. She is likely to win it, but didn't need to set up a line of attack on the bullet train.

I believe that, had her vote been absolutely needed, she would have voted yes. As it was, the needed 21 votes were secured Friday after major lobbying efforts by Brown, state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, whom many had doubted but who clearly came through in the clutch, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, organized labor, and various business leaders, among others.

The opponents of high-speed rail, dominated by the Republican Party, deliberately conflate the facts about the funding for this project as part of their agenda to further wreak havoc on the state budget and block Brown's November revenue initiative.

The funds in question do not come from California's general fund, aside from some interest payments down the line which are minor. They come instead from proceeds of already approved bonds backed by Schwarzenegger and many others in 2008 and from federal funds, which Schwarzenegger played the lead role in securing, especially from some states whose conservative Republican governors spurned funding in 2009 and 2010.

But the anti-bullet train PR, aided by reporting that in some cases deliberately distorts and in others glides over the facts, was much more effective than the pro-side, which made only a minimal effort.

Distortion and poor reporting led to a false meme, based on a Field Poll, that getting high-speed rail going would kill Brown's initiative.

About a fifth of supporters said that passage would make them less likely to vote yes. And a fifth, naturally unreported, said that passage would make them more likely to vote yes.

The poll -- the release of which was geared directly to the legislative vote -- did not present voters with the facts about where the money comes from, either.

Ironically, the people who were pushing this meme -- concern trolling all the way -- are opponents not only of high-speed rail, but of raising taxes on the rich. They include LA Times columnist George Skelton, who has devoted several columns to his opposition to raising taxes on the rich as well as the bullet train itself, and Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, who has been attacking Brown for about 40 years now. Skelton likes to praise Brown's liberal father, but Walters built his career attacking Brown, during his first governorship, and Democratic liberals, for the far right Sacramento Union, which was owned by Eastern billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, one of the principal funders of far right think tank and media efforts around the country. The paper was also owned at one point by an agent of the apartheid government of South Africa. The ostensibly liberal Bee hired Walters as part of its effort to kill the Union, which finally closed in 1994.

There has been a very sophisticated and persistent PR campaign against high-speed rail in California, because this is where the hope can be snuffed out in America. And the anti-side's PR has definitely gotten the best of things.

But the pro-bullet train's side has notably lacked a powerful and persistent communications operation of its own.

There are many statements and articles attacking the project that could be readily pushed back. But no one has been doing it on anything like a regular basis. As a result, high-speed rail opponents have largely enjoyed free rein with their PR and attendant media coverage.

Opposition hinges on the silly notion that right-wing control of Congress, a key funding source, is assured in perpetuity. And on conflation of funding sources. Aside from some interest payments, which amount to budget dust, none of the authorized project will be financed out of the state's general fund. The start-up phase will be financed by federal grants and already authorized bonds.

Because Brown and other proponents have pointed to real history in discussing this project and likening its opponents to the naysayers who attended similar great ventures, a beat reporter and would-be pundit described the debate as "History vs. Math." Better to describe it as history vs. pottery shards realism.

Because the "math" is a myth that depends on the most fragmentary understanding of politics. The project, which is very long-range, a couple of decades, actually, until ultimate fruition, is only short of federal funds if one assumes that right-wing Republicans will control the House of Representatives in perpetuity.

They just won it for the first time since the '90s in the last election! And polls show it to be the most unpopular Congress in history, because it is so extreme.

Does that mean that Democrats will win it back in November? Not at all. But they will win it back. To imagine that reactionary politics is the unbroken wave of the future in the 21st century is to have the most blindered view of history imaginable. And if that were, by some bizarre stroke of fate, to turn out to be reality, we would have vastly deeper problems than an unfinished rail system.

Meanwhile, the federal funding needed, along with the authorized bond money, to complete the first phase of the project, which runs through the remainder of this Brown term as governor and virtually all of the next term, is already in hand, finally secured by the legislature's vote to begin construction.

Much time is also taken up with something easily answered. Why run it down the Central Valley instead of the Pacific Coast?

Because that is where much of the state's future growth is. Because land is cheaper there. And because there are far fewer earthquake concerns.

Failing to include the Central Valley would lock much of the state out of the system. Which of course opponents would seize on as a reason to oppose the project if the spine of it had been placed down the coast.

While the history of big public works projects is indeed instructive, the history of high-speed rail in California is equally so.

Brown likes to say that it dates back to his first governorship, when he spoke of the need for high-speed rail and explored it. But the agency itself is of more recent vintage. And its provenance is clearly bipartisan. Especially since it was started by a Republican governor who has never been any friend of Brown.

The high-speed rail authority was proposed by a commission appointed by then Governor Pete Wilson, who signed legislation creating the agency in 1996, as this critical article in the conservative Hoover Institution's Policy Review makes clear. Wilson, incidentally, is a Hoover fellow.

The bill Wilson signed creating the California High-Speed Rail Authority, naturally gave the majority of the board members by appointment to the governor, i.e., Wilson himself,. The agency then set out to develop a plan for a statewide bullet train system.

But that was then and this is now. The new GOP orthodoxy, spurred by anti-Enlightenment thinking and fueled by the old energy economy, is to pretend that the status quo can remain into the future without costing even more.

After a few years work, Wilson's successor, Governor Gray Davis, signed legislation to place a $10 billion high-speed rail bond measure on the November 2004 ballot. Which new Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger moved to delay until a better time, which he judged to be November 2008, as the 2004 ballot was crowded with initiatives and 2006 was when he was pushing his own massive infrastructure plans.

November 2008, of course, was during the Great Global Recession -- much denied by conservatives at the time, who now use the economic woes they had denied as rationale to block government action now -- but the state ballot was less cluttered and it was a presidential election year. Proposition 1A, managed by Brown friend David Townsend, won with 53 percent of the vote and Schwarzenegger swung into action to secure federal funds, with some $3.3 billion ultimately secured.

It would be fair to say that, absent the backing of Schwarzenegger in creative centrist mode, there would be no high-speed rail project in California. Which is to say that absent his backing, there would be no high-speed rail project in America.

Schwarzenegger, joined by moderate Republican state Senator Abel Maldonado, whom Schwarzenegger made his lieutenant governor when John Garamendi won a congressional seat, pushed high-speed rail endlessly. He secured not only California's share of planned funding from the Obama administration, but successfully went after additional funding when other states turned it down under right-wing pressure.

But there were problems with the agency, as I learned in the latter half of 2010 as I spent time examining key elements of state government. I couldn't figure out what the agency's plan really was. And, even though it was spending many millions on PR, its message was very unclear. All this became all too apparent later, but Brown came in and got the agency sorted and the project moved forward.

While it is true that the project began under one Republican governor, Pete Wilson, and sprung into life under another, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the deeper metaphor for this controversial undertaking goes back much farther.

Brown likes the story of Abraham Lincoln pushing the transcontinental railroad amidst the incredible turbulence of the Civil War. It's a stunning story, one which captures the imagination.

It certainly captured the imagination of state Senator Michael Rubio, a Central Valley Democrat who got off the fence last Friday and delivered a floor speech citing Lincoln's example as he explained his yes vote.

But the truth is that, as rugged as some of the orchestrated criticism that Brown has received has been, and as difficult as California's challenges still are, Lincoln built a transcontinental railroad while fighting the Civil War, so all this is more than a bit on the light side.

I love the Lincoln story, too, because it so audacious. Far more audacious that Brown damning the torpedoes and ordering full speed ahead, declaring this an ultimate priority and ramming this bill through the legislature, far more audacious than Schwarzenegger ignoring the naysayers pushing for more federal funding and promoting high-speed rail till the last day of his governorship.

Lincoln, as the head of the "modernizers" of the Republican Party, pushed through his plan for the transcontinental railroad in 1862. Which was not only in the midst of the Civil War, but the Civil War that he was actually losing at the time! (Of course, the fact that removing the old Confederate States of America from U.S. politics would immediately delete the base of the current anti-Enlightenment version of the Republican Party takes us into another article entirely.)

Lincoln was still working his way through a succession of losing generals, and the Battle of Gettysburg, at which the Confederacy finally lost the initiative, was still a year away, and it was nearly two more years before Lincoln placed Ulysses S. Grant in command.

Lincoln was on the verge of losing a country when he decided to seize the future, healing a nation riven north to south by binding it together from east to west. What California is going through now is as nothing compared to that.

Brown also received very good news on another front on Monday.

Heiress Molly Munger, advocate of a very well-funded, as it is self-funded, zombie initiative to raise income taxes on all Californians for education, had joined forces with the right-wing Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association to try to block Brown's revenue initiative from the top spot on the November ballot.

A local judge had granted the Munger/Jarvis team a temporary restraining order stopping ballot prep from moving forward while he studied the matter. But last week he blocked a Munger/Jarvis move to delay a hearing till late July, and on Monday he dismissed their suit entirely.

Now the ballot is going forward, with Brown's initiative at the top, designated as Proposition 30. While Munger decided not to use her billionaire father's law firm to try to appeal Monday's court decision, her allies at the right-wing Jarvis group are trying to get an appellate court justice to overturn the Monday decision. I doubt that former Attorney General Brown is too troubled.

Brown also furloughed all state workers whose unions had not previously agreed to the move to achieve his promised 5 percent pay cuts. Which will certainly add to the credibility of the initiative.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

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