The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Californians Say No to High Speed Rail

It’s been four years since Californians went to the polls to support the construction of a high-speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and now they’re asking for a revote. With Governor Jerry Brown pushing to begin construction on the new train, the Huffington Post reports that 55 percent of voters have told pollsters that they would like to see the measure back on the ballot. And this time, they’ll vote against it—59 percent of Californians now oppose the measure. This marks a sizable shift from the original vote. In 2008, Proposition 1A, which provided funding for the high-speed rail project, passed by a margin of 53 percent in favor to 47 percent against with 80 percent turnout—a sizable victory. Today’s polls suggest a shift of more than 12 percent against the measure, and the breadth of the opposition is impressive:

The poll found that concerns about the project extend across regions, ethnic groups, income brackets and even political affiliations, according to the Times. Among Democrats, initially the strongest supporters of the plan, only 43 percent would support the bond in a new vote, while 47 percent would oppose it. Seventy-six percent of Republicans would vote against it.

The economic and political climate has changed drastically since 2008, making it difficult to pinpoint the precise reasons for this shift. But as the Huffington Post points out, there are a few obvious explanations. In the years since the passage of Prop 1A, the plans have been scaled back, so that the train will now share tracks with local trains for much of its route, which will force it to travel at slower speeds in certain areas.

But voters seem to be even more concerned about the train’s accelerating cost. Under normal circumstances, $68 billion may seem like a reasonable price for a project like this, but at a time when education, law enforcement, and other basic jobs are being cut, it’s hard to justify the expense. Small wonder Californians are beginning to balk — especially as polls show that most Californians think they would never ride the train and would prefer either driving or flying to make the trip.

To watch school funding get cut and prisoners released en masse from jails in order to fund a train that you don’t want and won’t ride: amazingly, working class and middle class Californians don’t want to sacrifice today so that well heeled yuppies can have fast train rides decades from now.

The more Californians see of this train, the less they like it. There was a time when ambitious public works projects cemented the Democratic coalition, but it looks increasingly in California as if that old blue magic doesn’t work anymore.

Published on June 6, 2012 9:00 am
  • thibaud

    High speed rail between San Francisco and San Jose/Silicon Valley would be welcome.

    There’s a huge loss to productivity, hence revenue, hence tax revenues, from the hours that are wasted in traffic-clogged highways that haven’t been expanded in over 20 years – despite a huge increase in the population and in economic activity.

    However, the biggest obstacle to fast rail between SF and SJ is the mall owners in San Mateo and Palo Alto.

    Pity that Mr Mead doesn’t focus on the real barriers to progress, which are regulatory capture artists of all sorts – private enterprise rent-seekers as well as public union hacks.

  • John Minehan

    Rail, even “high speed rail” is slower than car or air travel over a distance and that matters in the USA. Passenger rail is at best a niche in the USA, unless gas prices get MUCH higher.

  • WigWag

    Got it; California voters are fickle. They were for high speed rail before they were against it. Four years ago they voted for it; now they oppose it. Will they be for or against high speed rail two years from now? How about five years from now? What about a decade from now.

    Voters change their minds; often quite regularly. Sometimes they support Republicans; sometimes they vote for Democrats. Sometimes they are so ambivalent that they select a candidate randomly or don’t vote at all.

    What exactly is the point of this post? Does it have a valid point to make at all?

  • Otis McWrong

    Thibaud, you should make a habit of becoming knowledgeable about a topic before opining.
    San Jose/San Francisco has rail that is about as high speed as it’s ever going to get: Caltrain. The expresses (aka Baby Bullet) which run every ½ hour or so during rush hour go from downtown San Jose to San Fran in 57 minutes. Not bad considering it’s about 50 miles. If going from San Jose to San Fran in under an hour doesn’t work for you, perhaps you should consider a shorter commute than FIFTY MILES. They’re clean, comfortable, and with wi-fi the whole way. Caltrain runs on time (except for the periodic occasions when a bum..err homeless person wanders onto the tracks and gets run over).

    I lived in San Francisco and San Mateo for many years, rode Caltrain to work regularly, and visit there frequently, follow the Caltrain politics closely and have never once heard of “mall owners” being the obstacle to anything. One challenge facing Caltrain is enviro-weenie handwringing over the diesel-electric locomotives and wanting them all electric. But of course the power lines/grids aren’t in place and Union Pacific which owns and maintains the tracks has no motive to add them and the state has no money. This gets to the heart of liberal thinking by the way: hate cars (driven by other people) and want a train. So now there is a train. Now we want the train to make less smoke. We’re okay if the smoke comes from some elsewhere-located electric plant but reserve the right to protest against that plant and the evil corporation that owns it.

    The objection to the “high speed rail” coming from San Mateo/San Jose is from people who don’t want trains on street level tracks zipping through their town centers at 100+ mph – which is reasonable. Have you ever actually been to downtown San Mateo or Millbrae or Burlingame or San Carlos or Redwood City or Palo Alto or any other peninsula town? Small towns with lots of restaurants and stores and that happen to have train tracks running through the middle of them. Lots of people walking and driving across the tracks. Caltrain at 40mph with lots of warning and lights flashing and gates lowering is one thing…some lefty fantasy train at 100+ mph with the few people willing to spend 2x what a plane ticket costs riding it is something else.

    In case you wondered, yes I voted against the magic train. I had and have lots of business in LA and always thought it more convenient to take one of the billion flights per day between the two cities.

  • thibaud

    McWrong – yes, I live and have lived in several of the towns that CalTrain runs through.

    You’re probably right that my information on the source of the opposition is out of date – thanks for the correction. (I recall that, back in the day, the fiercest opposition to BART came from the owner of San Mateo’s Hillsdale Shopping Center, who thought all the traffic would pass him by on the way to downtown SF.)