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With High-Speed Rail's Approval, the Sales Job Begins

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Opinion: Selling High-Speed Rail

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High-speed rail needs to be sold to the public. Again.

That's strange to say, just after a big push to get the state Senate to -- barely -- approve the spending of funds, some from state bond moneys and some from the feds, to build the first 130 miles of the project in the Central Valley. Some improvements for existing rail systems in Northern and Southern California were part of the package, too.

Indeed, this was the second big sales push for high-speed rail. The first was for the 2008 ballot initiative that authorized high-speed rail and billions in bond money to pay for it.

But the public still needs to be sold.

Polls show big majorities of Californians oppose it. And to complete the project -- estimated at $68 billion currently -- may require some reversal in those numbers, and a softening of the objections among opponents. With little financing in place, public support could be important to getting the money -- either from the feds, from new state revenue streams (pollution credit fees?), or from private investors (who will want to see some public interest before investing in a train to serve the public).

Your blogger is not a fan of the project, and the early focus on the Central Valley. And I was dead-wrong in predicting that the project wouldn't make it even this far (this is one persistent zombie, it turns out). But the condemnations of it are over the top. Republicans and budget hawks are arguing that the state can't afford the train, that it will somehow bankrupt the state.

That's not quite right; $68 billion spread over three decades is not a lot of money annually -- a little over $2 billion a year, which is less than 2 percent of California's budget. The better questions about the project are whether anyone will ride it, whether the emphasis on a San Francisco-to-LA system is the right one, and whether money spent here will be taken away from other state infrastructure needs.

But those are all objections that can be answered -- if someone will answer them forcefully. One mystery of this process -- a mystery of the current governorship -- is why Jerry Brown isn't more forcefully, and frequently, selling his policies around the state. The governor seems to think that talking too much about his program and his plans will only weaken him.

He's wrong in general about that -- and especially wrong when it comes to high-speed rail. Correcting the record on the real budget impact of this, offering more of a vision of high-speed rail's importance, and telling us why we might want to use the train, are all things he should be talking about more often.

The other thing he needs to do: make sure that the construction of this train runs on time, and maybe even a little bit under budget. If construction falls behind schedule or is beset by problems, public support will crater. It's a shame -- a high-speed rail system should be built with an emphasis on safety and care, not speed.

But that's where high-speed rail is today -- a project that needs to be resold, again.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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