With California Gov. Jerry Brown leading the way, a ceremony Tuesday in downtown Fresno marked the start of construction on the high-speed rail project, more than six years after voters approved a $9.9 billion bond act that will help fund the system.
Rather than donning hard hats and shovels, however, Brown and other dignitaries signed ceremonial pieces of steel rails to signal that the project is underway. The invitation-only ceremony took place at the future site of Fresno’s high-speed rail station on the northeast corner of Tulare and G streets, while a small but boisterous gathering of protesters punctuated the event with occasional shouts and chants.
“This is the day we commemorate the beginning of the nation’s first high-speed rail project that promises to connect Northern, Central and Southern California like never before,” Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin said. “This project establishes Fresno as the central cog, the essential connecting point between Northern and Southern California.”
Demolition of buildings along the first 29-mile construction segment between Fresno and Madera has been going on since last summer, and major construction is likely weeks away.
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Still, California High-Speed Rail Authority board chairman Dan Richard said the ceremony marked a demarcation between years of talk and planning and readiness for construction. “Now we build,” he said. “We are entering a period of sustained construction on the nation’s first high-speed rail system for the next five years in the Central Valley, and in the decade beyond that we will be building across California.”
Brown, who on Monday was sworn in for his fourth term as governor, has been one of the staunchest supporters of the rail authority’s plan to build a 520-mile system to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco with electric trains capable of carrying passengers up to 220 mph. “We’ve got a lot to be proud of today,” he told a crowd of about 700 rail enthusiasts, labor representatives and others from across the state.
In his remarks Tuesday, Brown acknowledged that “I had doubts about this project” when he was elected to his second incarnation as governor in 2010, before his wife Anne Gust Brown helped convince him of its worth. “I wasn’t sure where the hell we were going to get the rest of the money,” he said. But with a broad, waving gesture, he added, “Don’t worry about it. We’re going to get it.”
That’s easier said than done for many critics, including some who gathered outside the fence surrounding the ceremony.
Their occasional chants of “Stop the train” and “Show us the money” reflect a key concern that the rail authority still faces — a gap of about $25 billion in money to build the proposed first operating rail segment from Merced to the San Fernando Valley.
The estimated cost to build that segment is about $31 billion, but to date the authority only has about $6 billion in hand. That money is a combination of federal transportation and stimulus funds from the Obama administration and matching funds from Proposition 1A, the $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond measure approved by California voters in 2008.
In a shrewd bit of staging, the podium was arranged so that television cameras (and there were plenty from across the state) pointed away from the streets and the dozen or so protesters who lined the fence. Those with strong lungs focused on two key themes: First, that high-speed rail makes no economic sense, that the price tag for something this complicated is beyond anyone’s ability to accurately predict, and the burden of debt would crush future generations; and second, if the government is going to print money like there’s no tomorrow, why not spend the dough on something vital like water security?
Because Brown was the last speaker in a program that lasted more than an hour, exhaustion silenced many of the protesters before the governor took the stage. Their anguish and anger may have been largely deflected by organizational expertise, but their emotions were sincere. Critics can’t understand how their fellow Californians got everyone into what they see as a stunning mess.
“This plan is not what we voted for,” said Carole Jacoby of Fresno.
In a news conference before the ceremony, Assembly Member Jim Patterson, a Republican and former Fresno mayor and high-speed rail opponent, said that while he supports progress, “what we cannot support is financial foolishness and government deceit, and that is what this high-speed rail project is all about. Nothing the government has promised the people, either at the ballot box or afterward, is coming true.”
Patterson said he spoke on behalf of Republicans in the state Assembly and Senate in asserting that the trains will not go as fast and will cost more than promised, that prime agriculture land is being torn out, and no money has been identified to finish the project. “What we are seeing here is basically a phony groundbreaking,” he said. “This is a stunt, and it covers over the hard facts that this is a financially irresponsible plan.”
Patterson said he believes Fresno may only get one stop per day if the line is ever completed, with most trains “blowing by” between Los Angeles and the Bay Area. “I think we’re getting a snow job about how much service Fresno’s going to get,” he said.
During their speeches, Brown and other dignitaries took swipes at rail foes while touting the project’s benefits. “Everything big runs into opposition,” Brown said, citing the California Water Project, the Golden Gate Bridge and BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). “People do get pusillanimous. That’s the adjective I’m going to affix to all the critics. It means weak of spirit.”
“You’ll always have critics (say), ‘Why spend the money?’ ” he added later. “My inclination is not to spend anything. But on the other hand, I like trains. I like clean air. I like to protect as much of the land as we possibly can. And I like to enjoy the comfort of trains.”
Brown said the estimated $68 billion cost for the complete 520-mile Phase 1 bullet-train system between Los Angeles and San Francisco is relatively small compared to California’s economic power. “California generates over $2 trillion a year. All this is is $68 billion of that” for a system with a 100-year lifetime, he said. “It’s not that expensive. We can afford it. In fact, we cannot afford to not do it as we look at building a future that really works.”
Federal Railroad Administration chief Joseph Szabo said that once major projects such as the Golden Gate Bridge or Panama Canal were completed, “the naysayers are all long forgotten. It pays to be on the right side of history. We remember the courageous leaders with the fortitude to weather the storms and prepare for the future.”
With the U.S. population expected to grow by another 100 million people by 2050, “we have to have an efficient, cost-effective, environmentally responsible way to move them,” Szabo added. “Rail is the mode of opportunity, and its benefits simply cannot be ignored.” He said two sets of railroad tracks can carry as much traffic in an hour as 16 freeway lanes “in a fraction of the space.”
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy praised Brown’s leadership on environmental issues over the past four decades and his efforts to spur high-speed rail. “California has been a leader in my world (of environmental stewardship) for so long, all I do is chase it,” she said. High-speed rail, she added, “has huge implications for protecting our health and our climate (and) plays a critical role in a sustainable future for all of us” by providing travelers with alternatives to driving or flying in airplanes.
“Fewer cars, fewer plane rides and cleaner trains mean cleaner air, and that means avoiding millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change.”