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California’s Brown Makes Powerful Case for High Speed Rail

I wrote yesterday about the problems with a lack of investment in public transit, highlighting California’s high speed rail system, and the knives that malign legislators and the traditional media have out for it. Fortunately, Jerry Brown isn’t taking the bait. He could have cut loose the program, and would have been rewarded for it by the commentariat, but instead he made a powerful argument to keep it going.

While the nation is in a “period of massive retrenchment,” Brown told The Fresno Bee’s editorial board, “I would like to be part of the group that gets America to think big again.”

The Democratic governor has said little publicly about the project since it came under fire this year in Sacramento, with cost estimates rising and lawmakers questioning its oversight. The project, to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles, was once expected to cost about $43 billion, a figure the California High-Speed Rail Authority is expected to update this fall.

Brown said he is “really getting into” the project and that “we’re working directly with the authority to get their act together.”

He said he will appoint a commissioner to fill a vacant seat on the agency’s governing board this week, though he declined to say who.

“I’m doing the best I can to keep this train running,” Brown said.

“I would like to be part of the group that gets America to think big again” is a nice slogan. It’s “win the future” with the backup of actual programs that will win the future. And it’s a rebuke to this attitude of retrenchment, of settling for less. Jerry Brown has not actually been the best messenger, considering his austerity budget. But he was constrained in that case by ridiculous rules that make governing in the state impossible. I’m glad that in this case, where the decision is more in his control, he’s going with public investment and lasting infrastructure.

Consider that the a lot of the money put to high speed rail has already been earmarked by bond and by federal investment. There are a number of private interests that want to enter into the partnership. There is more than enough money to build the first spoke in California, and after that you have a proof of concept which could spur additional investment.

California’s high speed rail system is an important test case. The program will cost money because high speed rail costs money. But the benefits are clear as well, and if it’s a choice between money to HSR and more money for carpool lanes that don’t relieve congestion, there’s no contest. The media has piled on the insults of a few powerful lawmakers and NIMBY types who simply have no use for progress. Jerry Brown is standing up to them, and for that, he deserves praise.

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David Dayen

David Dayen