by Steve Smith, California Labor Federation
Among the big political news this week was the release of the Legislative Peer Review Group’s report on the California high-speed rail project. The report recommends that the state freezes the project “at this time” until further assessment is done on its long-term feasibility. Problem is, the report was completed with minimal consultation with the California High-Speed Rail Authority, and ignored many of the details on feasibility included in the Authority’s recent business plan.
Opponents seized on the erroneous report to further their campaign to derail the project. While it might make good politics for some conservatives to oppose a signature program of the Obama White House, it certainly doesn’t make for good policy. Halting the high-speed rail project at this critical stage would jeopardize the entire project. It would put billions in federal funding at risk, and sap the state of an important engine to create desperately needed jobs.
The debate on high-speed rail – like so many other issues these days -- has become overly politicized and isn’t on the merits. A group of conservative Republicans wants to put the issue back on the ballot, even though voters have already approved $9 billion in state bonds for high-speed rail. Even the peer review group, which is balanced and supports the concept of high-speed rail, got many pertinent facts wrong in its report.
With respect to the project, it’s time we got back to basics. Many countries around the world, including China, are showing that high-speed rail is an important component to the future of transportation. It’s clean, environmentally friendly, efficient, convenient and affordable. It alleviates traffic and air congestion while giving passengers an important option to meet their travel needs. In California, the project also offers an enormous opportunity to give our struggling economy a boost, especially in areas hard hit by the recession like the Central Valley. Over the life of the project, as many as 750,000 jobs would be created.
The project is supported by Republicans, Democrats and Independents. On its merits, it makes perfect sense. And the California High-Speed Rail Authority (HSRA), after early missteps, now has its act together and has delivered a detailed and transparent plan to bring the project to fruition. Gov. Brown has infused the HSRA board with seasoned experts, like Dan Richard and Mike Rossi, who bring years of experience in transportation planning and finance.
California Labor Federation Executive Secretary Treasurer Art Pulaski:
With California facing a jobs crisis and an urgency to upgrade our failing transportation infrastructure, further delay in breaking ground on high-speed rail is neither prudent nor responsible. Any project that’s the size and scope of high-speed rail is bound to encounter difficulties along the way. But rather than working to implement the vision of high-speed rail, the peer review panel suggests derailing the project at a critical stage, which is not a viable solution for California. Under new leadership, the California High-Speed Rail Authority is headed in the right direction. The Authority’s business plan addresses the myriad issues facing high-speed rail in a thoughtful and thorough way.
The main hurdle for high-speed rail right now isn’t the project’s feasibility. It’s that the project has been enveloped in politics as usual. That’s why it’s critical that the legislature take all evidence into account, listen to the experts and carefully analyze the Authority’s business plan, which answers many of the questions raised by the peer review group.
One such expert is the new CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority Roelof van Ark:
It is unfortunate that the Peer Review Committee has delivered a report to the Legislature that is deeply flawed in its understanding of the Authority’s program and the experience around the world in successfully developing high speed rail. As someone involved in many of the successful high speed rail programs internationally, I can say that the recommendations of this Committee simply do not reflect a real world view of what it takes to bring such projects to fruition.
That’s not to say that ongoing issues, including long-term funding of the project, shouldn’t be addressed. But bowing to political hype to scuttle the project instead of carefully considering issues and finding solutions to work through them, would be a huge mistake.
The California labor movement supports high-speed rail because it holds more promise to transform our state’s economy, protect our environment and create a better quality of life for our families than any public works project in generations.
California was built by visionaries. It’s a proud tradition and important part of our heritage that we, as Californians, collectively embrace. Despite the challenges facing our state, it isn’t the time to shrink from the vision of high-speed rail. The bullet train can and must be built.
In the short term, the project will create thousands of desperately needed jobs to help lift our state out of economic morass. In the long term, high-speed rail will deliver a world-class, environmentally friendly transportation system that will transform our state. An investment in high-speed rail is an investment in our state’s future. The Legislature must grant voter-approved bonds so that work can begin on the project this year.