Will California Gov. Jerry Brown Tap Cap-and-Trade to Fund High-Speed Rail?

As opposition mounts, will the state's high-speed train ever roll?

by / January 7, 2014
California Gov. Jerry Brown Flickr/Ohad Ben-Yoseph

California's plan to build a $68 billion high-speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles has encountered many obstacles over the years. Environmental reviews, lawsuits by landowners, political opposition, and flagging public support following recession belt-tightening have all slowed the project to a crawl. Public opinion has tipped against the rail line in the wake of falling confidence in government, and the project may be brought to a vote again. An environmental review of the beginning portion of the rail line will go forward. And finally, in November a Superior Court judge blocked the sale of $8.6 billion in voter-approved bonds to finance the first part of the line.

Even Brown's Democratic colleagues are divided -- especially on the issue of starting the project without funding to complete it. Democratic Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, chair of the state's Transportation and Housing Committee, voted against the project, and was quoted in a recent  New York Times article saying, “That’s the bottom line: Show me the money."

Without state contribution to the rail line, federal funds are at risk. But Gov. Jerry Brown, a long-time advocate of high-speed rail, announced a plan to use some $280 million from the state's sale of cap-and-trade carbon credits to aid the struggling rail project.

Will the project overcome its significant hurdles? Or will the "train to nowhere," as its opponents have termed it, go nowhere?

Rod Diridon, the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, said in the Times article that one should expect big projects to have big obstacles.

For historical perspective, Construction Infrastructure Architect World (CIAW) in 2012 celebrated the 75th anniversary of the building of the Golden Gate Bridge -- a project that had its own troubles getting started. According to CIAW, the great depression scared away funding, opponents derided the design as "an upside-down rat trap" that would spoil the beauty of the bay, experts warned that the depths and currents of the narrow strait would destroy the bridge, and opponents filed 2,300 lawsuits to stop the project. Nevertheless, the bridge has become one of America's most powerful symbols, a testimony to vision and persistence. 

Historical perspective is decisive as to the Golden Gate Bridge, but California's high-speed rail project has yet to be decided. Perhaps in another 75 years, we will review the decision pro or con with as much assurance.