| In the 1930s, California legislators of both parties came together to work to end the Depression by putting people back to work building infrastructure that provided lasting value. They weren't cowed into submission by costs or financial concerns. They did what was necessary and what was right to solve the crisis and build a better future by building bridges and dams and canals across the state.
A generation later, legislators of both parties did it again. This time the economy was booming and money was no problem, but still our leaders recognized that the California Aqueduct, the freeways, and schools and universities were essential to current and future prosperity.
We're living on the benefits of those investments. But it is time to make new ones, for a new century, to face new challenges, and get us out of a new crisis. Sadly, the present leadership in the legislature - especially the Senate - appears to want to reject the proven path California took in the 20th century. Rather than spend money to create jobs and lasting economic value through new infrastructure, several Senate Democrats are now sounding just like right-wing Republicans in their attacks on the high speed rail project:
"The Field Poll confirmed what I already had come to believe: The public patience for this project is about exhausted," said state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
DeSaulnier said he has long supported the bullet train service as a way to fight congestion and greenhouse gases.
But he said Tuesday that he could turn against the project unless the California High Speed Rail Authority soon can answer questions about spiraling costs and uncertainty over federal and private funding for the project.
"I think it's time to fish or cut bait with this project," he said. "It may be too late."
DeSaulnier, who I have had a lot of respect for, is clearly out to lunch on this one. He's going to let one poll that asked a limited question about HSR and therefore isn't actually a good guide to public opinion on the subject convince him to give up on building California's future?
That's an absurd attitude to take. It's defeatist. And many of the infrastructure projects California now enjoys faced similar problems. After voters approved the Golden Gate Bridge bonds in November 1930, the financial crisis nearly made it impossible to sell the bonds. Ultimately the federal government worked out a deal to help back the bonds, and construction got under way by 1933, with the project completed by 1937. California didn't quit when the project got difficult. They worked hard to find solutions and got it done.
DeSaulnier, by contrast, appears ready to just give up. It makes no sense.
Especially when so much of California's hopes at economic recovery are riding on this project. The Central Valley initial construction segment could create over 10,000 construction jobs in the coming years. There is nothing else on the horizon to produce nearly that many jobs in this state, especially in one of the parts of the state where unemployment is the highest. DeSaulnier is reckless to just toss those jobs to the wind.
Particularly since California isn't actually risking anything by moving ahead with that segment. Prop 1A is quite clear that $9 billion in bonds are all that are authorized, and can only be spent on a 1:1 match with federal funds. If no more federal funds come, then no more state money is spent. The worst possible outcome is a bunch of people are paid good money to build unfinished rail infrastructure in the Valley and we call it a day. Even that would be a big stimulus for the Valley and the state.
And yet we know that outcome isn't very likely. The federal funding picture isn't very bright right now, but that is likely to change in the next few years. If not, again, the state isn't on the hook for anything else, so there's no risk but lots of potential rewards.
California's present crisis is the product of legislators who weren't willing any longer to do what it took to produce a stable, lasting prosperity. Rather than take their cues from Republicans and Democrats of the '30s, the '50s, and the '60s, they began to simply hide from their obligations and responsibilities. The state's education system is in crisis, unemployment is sky-high, poverty is rising, and because legislators wouldn't do enough to reduce dependence on oil, the state is in a lasting economic slump.
High speed rail is one way to help get out of it, by following a proven path of using infrastructure to provide short-term stimulus and long-term value. Democrats in Sacramento should know as well as anyone the need to do this and benefits it brings. I am pretty damn sure Mark DeSaulnier knows better than to just give up on California's future. And yet he might just do it all because one of unfavorable poll? That's a pretty damning indictment of the state legislature's ability and willingness to do what it takes to fix California.