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Can High-Speed Rail Opposition Boost California GOP?

Can High-Speed Rail Opposition Boost California GOP?

By Adam O'Neal - July 10, 2014

A few weeks before California’s gubernatorial primary, Republican candidates Neel Kashkari and Tim Donnelly gathered at a Southern California hotel to debate each other. Both campaigns expected the event to be a pivotal moment in the closely contested campaign.

Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury official, and Donnelly, an anti-illegal immigration activist- turned-assemblyman, found plenty to disagree over: abortion, immigration, the 2008 bank bailout, same-sex marriage, education, and other issues -- both stylistic and substantive.

Still, some topics can unite even the most divided political party.

Toward the end of the debate, one of the moderators -- a local radio talk show host often aligned with conservative causes -- asked the candidates, “If elected, will both of you guys promise to throw your body in front of the high-speed train?”

Kashkari replied instantly, eager to highlight his steadfast opposition to California’s high-speed rail project in front of a conservative audience: “Absolutely. Day one, that train is dead.”

Asked if he also opposes the multibillion-dollar infrastructure development, which voters handily approved with a 2008 ballot proposition, Donnelly offered a more caustic response, “I think I’m going to throw the other poor bastard in front of the train.”

Donnelly declined to identify “the other poor bastard,” and Kashkari’s spokesperson had fun speculating whether it was Kashkari or Gov. Jerry Brown.

Gallows humor aside, the question and the candidates’ responses actually underscored how strong opposition to the train has become among Golden State Republicans.

One big question now is whether, despite spending billions already, the project will ever be completed. Another is whether high-speed rail is the issue that can rejuvenate California’s moribund Republican Party.

For his part, Brown continues to embrace the undertaking, which has faced a series of legal, financial, and practical hurdles that have driven up costs and delayed construction for years. Even news that some members of his own party have abandoned the project hasn’t dimmed Brown’s unyielding optimism.

The state’s longest-serving governor is betting that voters will tune out the opposition and rally behind him this November. So far, the train hasn’t hurt his re-election prospects: Brown leads Kashkari (who prevailed over Donnelly) by about 20 points, according to recent polling.

Yet, Republicans remain confident that opposition to high-speed rail is a winning position -- one that might shift the momentum in races across the state. Concurrently, Brown believes he can help radically transform the state’s transportation system with manageable political backlash.

The ultimate test of each assumption won’t come until November, but the project’s history and current state give clues to how the issue might play in the coming months.

Decades of Delays

Californians first elected Jerry Brown governor in 1974, and the former Jesuit seminarian quickly developed a reputation for fiscal restraint, personal austerity, and futurist tendencies.  All three of these traits, which don’t always co-exist easily, came into play with his fascination for high-speed passenger trains.

Brown says he believes he rode high-speed rail for the first time in the 1960s during a visit to Japan. Regardless, he became an early advocate for bringing the technology to California.  

Two plans for rail in the state went nowhere during his first stint as governor. But as California’s population continued to grow, and traffic congestion worsened, interest in high-speed rail re-emerged. The California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) was created in 1996. The legislature tasked CHRSA, which still oversees the project today, with preparing a rail plan for voter approval. 

After years of delays, Proposition 1A finally appeared on the ballot in 2008. The proposition authorized the state to issue nearly $10 billion in new bonds for the high-speed rail authority to build a train line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

The measure promised to reduce congestion and air pollution, as well as California’s reliance on foreign oil. It required that a “clean, efficient 220 MPH transportation system” be built. Voters approved the measure, 52.6 percent to 47.4 percent.

After decades of setbacks, high-speed rail was finally coming to the Golden State.

Two Worlds

Williams Ibbs, a civil engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has spent decades studying and consulting construction projects throughout the world. He told RCP that California’s high-speed rail plan is an engineering project comparable to the United States’ first transcontinental railroad or the Panama Canal.

Rod Diridon, who served as executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute for nearly 20 years, added, “It’s much more difficult than anyone could ever imagine. This is the biggest project in the history of the United States.”

Everyone can agree that the project is ambitious and tremendously difficult, but that’s the only real consensus. (Ibbs opposes the project, while Diridon supports it.) Even in today’s hyper-polarized political environment, the high-speed rail project stands out for its ability to elicit dissimilar descriptions.

According to Gov. Brown, “California is getting its act together in a very forward-looking way” by embracing the undertaking. Kashkari counters that building high-speed rail in California today “is like going to Africa and trying to wire them with dial-up” rather than installing high-speed Internet.

Opinions differ, too, on whether -- regardless of its utility -- the political will exists to get it done.

Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican, said the project is now “the most viable project in the country for a number of reasons.”

California state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, a Democrat, says that the current rail approach is “going to set the vision back quite a bit” -- and may never be completed. 

Since 2008, the project has faced a dizzying series of hurdles that have shifted public opinion polls, surprised political experts, and created a new dynamic that Republicans hope will enable them to mount a comeback in a state where their political power has all but disappeared.

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Adam O'Neal is a political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at aoneal@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearAdam.

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