We walked across the Golden Gate Bridge last weekend. There is a great new area that explains the history of the bridge and how it came into existence.
The bridge had over 20,000 lawsuits against it—local NIMBYS said it was a boondoggle. They further insisted it would be an eye-sore that reduces property values, was too expensive and the financing too complicated (i.e. built on bonds) .Generally, every negative NIMBY blasted it.
Today, the statue at the bridge honors Joseph Strauss–the engineer who designed and built the bridge. A.P. Giannini, of Bank of America, is given credit for buying the bonds—in the middle of a depression—to fund it, and every elected official who presided over the bridge’s construction is lauded somewhere along the structure.
The idea of San Francisco without the Golden Gate Bridge is, today, unthinkable.
But like the Golden Gate Bridge, California High Speed Rail faces the same type of opposition. Initial construction was courageously approved by the legislature last week, by one vote. The specious arguments against the project catered to the loud, noisy NIMBYs, whose ignorance is only matched by their tenacity to subvert progress. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and the project is moving forward.
The public officials arguing against the future was disappointing. They utilized the false premises of High Speed Rail opponents, yet they knew the real consequences of not approving the first phase of the project. Their pandering to curry political favor with the NIMBY crowd was unseemly.
The facts are straightforward. The money set aside for High Speed Rail can only be used for that purpose. If the legislature had turned down the project, the money would not go to education—as opponents suggest—or anything else. The federal government would simply give the money to another state. The state portion is the bond money voters approved specifically for high speed rail. The state either has to use it or lose it.
Second, this is only phase one and it is not a train to nowhere. The initial $6 billion in funding will allow for 2-5 years of construction and over 100,000 jobs in the blighted Central Valley. While it is true future federal funding will not be forthcoming in the near term, when Congress becomes democratic again in the future, money will again begin to flow. Republicans won’t be in charge of the house forever. And California, already in the midst of construction, will be first in line for new funds.
The interstate highway system began in Kansas in 1957. It was not completed until 1992. No project of this size is funded all at once. But if we do not begin construction now, we will lose the opportunity in the foreseeable future.
Thanks to Gov. Jerry Brown, who put board member Dan Richard in charge to make the plan politically palatable. Richard was also key in hiring Jeff Morales, the former head of Caltrans and a person who understands California politics to head the project Roleff Van Ark, the previous executive, was a brilliant engineer whose private sector experience clashed with the California body politic. Morales will provide adroit leadership with sufficient political knowledge to keep the project on track.
In addition, Assembly Speaker John Perez, and Senate ProTem Darrel Steinberg deserve credit for cobbling together enough votes while enduring the shallow arguments and catcalls of those who choose politics over good public policy. That is leadership.
When California High Speed Rail is a reality, all of these public officials will be remembered for their courage and vision. And they might even get their names on a bronze plaque.
Rich Robinson is a political consultant in Silicon Valley who has worked under contract with the High Speed Rail Authority.