Tax Initiative Isn't Good Reason to Vote Against High-Speed Rail

It's crunch time for high-speed rail.

The Assembly has approved legislation to spend money to begin phase one of the project, with a link in the Central Valley and improvements to existing rail in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. But Democratic state senators are blocking it.

Late in the debate about this policy, a new, political objection to high-speed rail has come up: voting to approve an expensive new project will undermine support for Gov. Jerry Brown's temporary tax initiative. The objection -- put forward by pollsters, columnists and elected officials, many of them sympathetic to high-speed rail -- has gathered steam (pun intended).

Your blogger is no fan of the California high-speed rail project. But this is a strange objection. Yes, polling suggests public opposition to high-speed rail, and steady if less-than-overwhelming support for the tax initiative. And some polling suggests that high-speed rail could work against the initiative.

But that's far from a sure thing. Indeed, there are so many reasons to vote against the temporary tax initiative that high-speed rail would certainly be down the list of potential opponents.

Since the initiative is likely to lose (it's well under 60 percent support before a full-scale campaign has been launched against it), it makes little sense to sacrifice high-speed rail for it.

What's more, high-speed rail is a 30-year infrastructure project that should be considered on its merits -- irrespective of this year's budget, or an initiative with temporary taxes that will be entirely expired in seven years.

The proper questions about high-speed rail are: how much does it cost, and does it provide enough benefits to make that cost worth paying?

The larger context for these questions is not this year's initiative but the state's larger infrastructure pictures. California has, according to recent studies, in the neighborhood of $800 billion in existing infrastructure needs that the state hasn't reckoned. Should high-speed rail be a higher priority than those? Or can it somehow be part of a larger plan to meet those needs?

Your blogger tends to believe high-speed rail isn't ready to go forward because its backers don't have answers to those questions. They don't know how they're going to finance it, they don't really know if anyone will ride it, and their current emphasis on building a link between San Francisco and LA doesn't make sense given that high-speed rail is likely to draw more riders by connecting people in California's mega-regions (via LA to San Diego, or Sacramento to San Jose and San Francisco links).

But Gov. Brown's initiative shouldn't be a factor in those debates.

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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