Photo: California High Speed Rail Authority
As high-speed rail projects across America have run into political trouble or been cancelled, California’s the largest and most ambitious has continued to move forward.Proponents of fast trains hoped that a successful line in California could spur development elsewhere.
But now even California’s plan is in jeopardy. Its ambition has been scaled back and its projected costs have increased.
Even voters have turned on it. A new survey by USC-Dornsife and the Los Angeles Times found that if given a second chance to vote on the 2008 $9 billion bond issue that is funding the early stages of the project, 59% of survey respondents would vote it down.
Part of what’s happened here is that high-speed rail, like almost everything promoted by President Barack Obama, has become an intensely partisan issue in America. Republican governors across the country have criticised high-speed projects and rejected federal money to fund rail development. Mr Obama, meanwhile, has redistributed the rejected money to states like California that are run by Democrats and are more receptive to high-speed rail.
All this makes sense. Mr Obama made high-speed-rail funding a big part of his 2008 stimulus package, and political scientists generally believe that a president weighing in on an issue polarizes people’s opinions about it. In California, 76% of Republicans now oppose the high-speed-rail project, compared to just 47% of Democrats.
The other problem, of course, is that powerful local and regional interests are threatened by the high-speed-rail plans. Airlines, freight transporters and not-in-my-backyard activists all have problems with the project. High-speed rail’s opponents smell blood and are not going to fall in line, and the train plan is many years from completion. Unless California’s leaders are truly committed to pushing high-speed rail forward and spending political capital to do so this plan is probably doomed. And when it comes to high-speed rail, as goes California, so goes the nation.