SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Critics have called it the train to nowhere and a $98 billion boondoggle. As concerns mount over the practicality and affordability of California's plan to build a high-speed rail system, even many former supporters are beginning to sound skeptical.
Not so Gov. Jerry Brown. He has emerged as the most vocal cheerleader of a project that is as risky as it is ambitious.
Building a first-in-the-nation project would provide a lasting legacy for the 73-year-old Democratic governor as he moves into the twilight of a long political career. His father is revered for promoting the construction of California's comprehensive water system and expanding the state's higher education system into a national model.
The stakes are high for Brown as he champions a massive public works project that other governors, notably in Florida and Ohio, have shunned. Many critics, even some fellow Democrats, worry that the rail line will never be self-sustainable and that the financially struggling state will be saddled with huge operational costs.
Yet Brown has expressed little patience for those whose ambitions for the nation's most populous state are lower than his own, dismissing them as "declinists." He said a state with a population of nearly 38 million — projected to be 49.2 million by 2030, three years before the first phase of the rail line would be finished — already is stifled by traffic gridlock and air pollution.
California, Brown says, can't afford to miss the chance to invest in high-speed rail, which he promotes as a clean-energy alternative for travel.
"Spain can build it. China can build it. France can build it. Germany can build it. England can build it. Japan can build it. But oh, we can't build it," Brown said, mocking critics in a speech a week ago to the California Democratic Party convention. "No, we can build more airport runways, more freeways over the next 50 years. That's twice as expensive. So I'm not saying it's cheap; I'm just saying it's cheaper than the alternative, and it's a hell of a lot better."
Brown was addressing the convention in San Diego, one of the major California cities left off the first phase of the high-speed rail line, which has led to local criticism. Sacramento, the state capital, also is left out.
Despite the cost and imperfections of the current plan, Brown has support from President Barack Obama's administration, which included $35 billion for passenger rail over the next five years in its latest budget proposal. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood visited California earlier this month to reaffirm the president's support.
LaHood called it "good for the economy and the nation."
The administration has promised $3.5 billion to California on the conditions that work begins this year and that the first section of track will go in the Central Valley, more sparsely populated than the state's coastal regions.
California voters approved $9 billion in bonds to be used as seed money for high-speed rail in 2008. The network would link the San Francisco Bay area to Los Angeles and Orange County via the Central Valley, and would be completed by 2020 at a cost of $45 million.
The ballot measure said trains would run at speeds of up to 220 mph in an 800-mile network connecting all the major population centers. Travel time between San Francisco and Los Angeles: 2 hours and 40 minutes.
The plan has changed dramatically since voters approved it.
In a draft business plan last fall, the California High-Speed Rail Authority said the projected cost had jumped to between $98 billion and $117 billion, while the completion date for the entire first section was pushed back 13 years.
A subsequent report by the nonpartisan state auditor's office said there were no commitments in place to fund the project beyond the $9 billion authorized by voters and the $3.5 billion in federal money.
The auditor's report called the program's financial situation "increasingly risky." The rail line's supporters, including unions advocating for construction jobs, say private operators could run the system without more taxpayer money.
The auditor estimated operating costs from 2025 to 2060 could be nearly $97 billion, and said the plan doesn't include "any alternatives" if it fails to generate significant profits beginning in its first operational year.
Questions also have been raised about the engineering, ridership projections and estimated fares that rail officials say would make the train competitive with airfare.
The concerns have caused some previous supporters to waver.
"I don't want the state of California chasing $3.5 billion in federal funds at a cost of $98.5 billion. That's not my idea of a bargain," said state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, a one-time supporter. "If future funding is uncertain, then whatever we're going to build and pay for today has to have real value in and of itself."
He calls himself a "supporter of high-speed rail done right," but said he'd yet to see such a project.
Simitian questions whether the initial phase, a 130-mile section of track linking Fresno to Bakersfield, would have any value if the rest of the line is never built.
Under the current plan, that track would be electrified to allow for higher speed travel, but it would not directly connect to other rapid rail lines.
Some of the questions are likely to be addressed in a new version of the rail authority's business plan.
Since the previous one was released, Brown has transformed the authority's board of directors and ordered it to devise a workable plan that is politically defensible. He has said he expects the plan eventually submitted to the state Legislature to carry a price tag well below $100 billion.
Lawmakers must approve selling the voter-approved bonds sometime this year.
The person charged with implementing Brown's mandate is Dan Richard, a Brown appointee who took over as chairman of the rail board.
Years of engineering, environmental review and financial studies already have been completed and were subjected to public hearings, but the authority has just a few months to revise the plan to make it more palatable to lawmakers. Richard said he takes the concerns raised by the state auditor and others seriously.
"I guess at this point, I have a one-line response: Change is coming to high-speed rail," he said.
An updated final plan was due to the Legislature by Jan. 1, but that deadline has been pushed back several times. It is not expected before the end of March.
Among the changes being considered are accelerating the 30-year construction timeline to reduce inflation costs, using more existing regular rail tracks in the Central Valley and other areas and re-routing part of the Central Valley line closer to existing freight and passenger rail lines. That could reduce rights of way costs.
The rail authority also is considering spending about $1 billion to upgrade existing rail networks and electrify tracks at each end of the system, which would allow faster trains and could help garner political support. This approach has the backing of some local officials who are concerned about the expense and land needed to build separate dedicated lines, but using existing rail lines runs the risk of taking the "high-speed" out of high-speed rail.
That underscores the stakes for Brown. He says California should be a pioneer in building a system he believes is necessary for the future, but the cost and construction hurdles are so high they could imperil the project's long-term viability.
Critics already are trying to starve the project of public financing.
Republicans in Congress have introduced legislation that would prohibit any additional federal transportation money for high-speed rail. In the state Legislature, several GOP lawmakers have introduced bills to halt its funding.Comment on this story
Last month, Republican state Sen. Doug LaMalfa and former Republican congressman George Radanovich submitted language for a statewide ballot initiative tentatively titled "Stop the $100 Billion Bullet Train to Nowhere Act."
A recent poll found that California voters would not support the project if they were asked to vote again.
Despite the criticism, Brown is having no second thoughts, said his spokesman, Gil Duran.
"There was always an understanding that this draft plan would be reviewed and critiqued, and nobody will be able to say that there was not a thorough critique of the plan," Duran said. "Nothing of this magnitude and importance gets built without overcoming some sharp criticism and tough obstacles."