The new leader of the California Assembly says he remains a supporter of the state’s expensive and controversial high-speed rail system. But that backing could soften over recent changes to the project that include running the first trains from the Valley to San Jose instead of his stomping grounds in Southern California.
“I’ve been a supporter of high-speed rail, a strong supporter of it, and I’ve seen today how important it is to Fresno,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, told The Bee’s editorial board in a meeting Tuesday afternoon.
“But to be honest, last month when the new (rail) business plan came out, as a Southern Californian and an Assembly member from Los Angeles County, I was a bit surprised, and I have significant questions about it.”
Rendon, a Democrat, was joined at The Bee by Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican. The pair set aside any obvious partisan differences and stressed the need to work collaboratively. Rendon was in Fresno to meet with Swearengin to learn about the city’s issues and needs, including education and economic development.
“It’s definitely in the city’s best interest to maintain a good relationship with the speaker’s office,” Swearengin said.
Rendon, who ascended to the speakership last month, said he was disappointed that he would not have much time to work with Swearengin before her term as mayor concludes at the end of this year.
Later in the day, Rendon expected to visit the campaign headquarters of Joaquin Arambula, a Democrat in Tuesday’s special election to fill the vacant 31st Assembly District seat.
Over the course of a 45-minute discussion with Bee editors, Rendon addressed California’s extensive needs in vital infrastructure including water, transportation and education – as well as the challenges in finding the funds necessary to make improvements. High-speed rail, he said, is one of those concerns.
“I’m still a supporter,” he said of the proposed 520-mile, $64 billion system that ultimately would connect San Francisco and Los Angeles with 220-mph, electric-powered passenger trains.
“But I want to make sure it’s done correctly. … I want to make sure it’s on time and on budget, and I want to make sure it has a ridership that’s significant enough to be worth the investment.”
Ridership, he added, is the focal point of his concern if the California High-Speed Rail Authority makes good on the proposal in its draft 2016 business plan to start initial operations of a system from north of Bakersfield to the Silicon Valley – a shorter and less-expensive route but a significant shift from earlier plans for the San Fernando Valley to be the initial destination for trains from the San Joaquin Valley.
The 2012 and 2014 editions of the authority’s business plans estimated the cost of a Merced-to-Burbank line at about $31 billion with operations to commence in 2022. But uncertainty over where the money would come from prompted the rail agency to change its focus in the 2016 plan, with an estimated price tag of $21 billion to reach San Jose and begin operations in 2025.
“I think … to a large extent, what we do in this state at the level of public policy, if not political questions, are certainly impacted by politics,” Rendon said, acknowledging the sharp divide in the Legislature between Democrats who dominate both the Assembly and state Senate and have largely supported the rail project, and Republicans who bitterly oppose it.
“The support of high-speed rail, since it was passed by voters, has decreased. We know that from every public opinion poll” regardless of whether those polls are politically driven or not, he said.
If the state’s largest urban areas in Southern California are not included in the first operational stage, Rendon added, “I’m worried that support will continue to decline and that will cause significant problems with the overall project.”
The bullet-train project, however, is just one big issue Rendon is focusing on since ascending to the speakership. California’s extensive infrastructure needs – especially water – also will command his attention.
Rendon was instrumental in the development of legislation that became Proposition 1, a ballot measure approved by voters in 2014 authorizing the sale of about $7.5 billion in bonds for water-storage projects across the state, potentially including a new dam on the San Joaquin River at Temperance Flat east of Fresno.
“We spent five years working on that bond,” he said, including holding a series of 18 hearings up and down the state over 14 months.
“Through those efforts, we allocated $7.2 billion, which by my estimate is somewhere between 7 and 10 percent of our water infrastructure needs in California,” he said. “It’s staggering when you think of all the effort we put into it and how little it covers.”
Rendon noted that the state’s aging systems for moving water “were largely created by a federal government … dedicated to big projects that today would cost tens of billions, if not hundreds of billions of dollars.”
“We don’t have that,” he added. “Regardless of your politics, we don’t have a federal government that’s engaged at that level anymore. We’re going to have to figure things out within the state. … The short answer is, yeah, we need to make more investments in water.”
But, he added, “you can make similar arguments for huge investments in schools, similar arguments for investments in transportation. So we have a general infrastructure problem in California. Water is part of that reality.”
“How we prioritize (those needs) is something that the Legislature and future governors need to figure out.”