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Why Jerry Brown is standing firm on shaky California high-speed rail plan

Another report critical of California's $100-billion high-speed rail project – the second this month – has not shaken Gov. Jerry Brown's faith in the plan. He has his eyes on his legacy, some say.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / January 25, 2012

An artist's rendering of a high-speed train on the $98.5 billion system proposed by the California High Speed Rail Authority.

California High Speed Rail Authority/AP/File

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Los Angeles

A new report by the state auditor concludes that California’s proposed $98.5 billion bullet train is “increasingly risky” and has inadequate oversight, adding to a growing pile of formal assessments that raise major concerns about the project.

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Three weeks ago, an independent panel required by law to review the plans said the bullet train poses “an immense financial risk.” And in November, California's independent Legislative Analyst’s Office said parts of the plan don’t comply with the 2008 ballot measure that authorized state funding for the project. 

Undeterred, Gov. Jerry Brown is pressing ahead, claiming that the train will create jobs, accommodate future population growth, and aid the environment.

In his state-of-the-state address Jan. 15, he said boldly: “During the 1930s, the Central Valley Water Project was called a 'fantastic dream' that 'will not work.' The Master Plan for the Interstate Highway System in 1939 was derided as 'New Deal jitterbug economics.' In 1966, then-Mayor Johnson of Berkeley called [the Bay Area Rapid Transit system] a 'billion dollar potential fiasco.' Similarly, the Panama Canal was for years thought to be impractical and [British Prime Minister] Benjamin Disraeli himself said of the Suez Canal: 'totally impossible to be carried out.' "

"The critics were wrong then and they’re wrong now,” he concluded.

Political analysts say Governor Brown has his eye on history, trying to be mentioned favorably alongside his father, Pat Brown, who was governor from 1959 to 1967 and whose achievements virtually define modern California.

“Governor Brown is seeking to define his legacy, and public mass transportation is one of the things in which he deeply believes,” says Michael Shires, a public policy specialist at Pepperdine University. “The creation of a high-speed rail link would allow him to leave an imprint on the state that is in the same universe as his father's legacy of water projects, universities, and highways.”  

The state auditor's report, however, spoke harshly of the plan. It notes that only $12.5 billion of the $100 billion-plus project is secured, with no indication of how the rest is to be obtained. It also claimed that the California High-Speed Rail Authority doesn't have mechanisms in place for monitoring its contractors.

Supporters of the project say the 220-m.p.h. trains will transform transportation in the state and create jobs. The move is also shrewd politically for Brown, helping him with unions, who helped elect him and whose support he needs for a tax-hike initiative this fall, analysts say. Plus, touting rail has very little downside for now.

“Particularly during a difficult recession, reminding voters of long term makes him look like a visionary,” says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

It was the Obama administration, he and others note, that last year pushed the idea of a national, high-speed rail network.

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