SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to redirect $250 million from California’s landmark effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and spend it instead on his beleaguered bullet train has renewed debate about the future of the contentious project.
In defending that part of the budget proposal he released this week, Brown pitched the $68 billion rail line as the perfect way to unite a fractured state and help California “pull together to form a greater community.”
His proposal does appear to be uniting many lawmakers and interest groups, but perhaps not in the way the governor intended. Some Democrats who have supported high-speed rail have joined their Republican colleagues in rejecting Brown’s funding idea, and environmental groups are lukewarm at best on it.
They say the money should be used to improve California’s air quality today and not go to a project that is decades away from being finished, if it is ever built at all.
The project has been dogged by setbacks in recent months. In November, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge rescinded the rail authority’s funding plan, ordering it to get more environmental clearances and show how it will pay for the first 300 miles of work, agreeing that the voter-approved initiative that authorized funding for the bullet train required it. That segment alone is projected to cost $31 billion.
The judge also blocked the further sale of some $9 billion in bonds that were approved in the 2008 ballot measure, money the state had planned to use to start work in the Central Valley.
Brown has been steadfast in his efforts to keep the high-speed rail dream alive.
On Thursday, he compared the project to building the Golden Gate Bridge, the transcontinental railroad and the Panama Canal, all of which he said faced “criticisms, skepticism and attack.”
“It reduces greenhouse gases, it ties our California together. We are divided in many respects: north and south, the coast and the center of the state. We have to pull together to form a greater community, and the high-speed rail serves all of those functions,” Brown told reporters during Thursday’s budget briefing.
Republican lawmakers pounced on the idea to take money from the cap-and-trade fund, which comes from fees paid by industries participating in California’s new market on carbon emissions.
Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo, vice chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, called it inappropriate to spend that money “on this doomed project.” Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, said “hijacking cap-and-trade dollars to fund high-speed rail is clearly a desperate measure.”
On Friday, Gorell filed language for a proposed ballot initiative that would ask voters to repeal the bonds they had approved to pay for the bullet train.
The proposal contained in Brown’s budget blueprint would spend another $600 million from the cap-and-trade fund on energy efficiency, transportation and water infrastructure projects. While those priorities are generally viewed favorably by Democrats and environmental groups, they had a tepid reaction to allotting $250 million to keep the high-speed rail project moving.
It also is just a tiny fraction of the overall price tag for high-speed rail, currently at $68 billion.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said he would seek “a very robust legal analysis” of the proposal.
Assemblyman Rich Gordon, a Democrat from Menlo Park, where residents are suing the High-Speed Rail Authority, said the money should be “put to immediate use by investing in shovel-ready greenhouse gas emissions reduction projects,” rather than high-speed rail.
The controversy stems partly from the intended mission of the cap-and-trade program, which is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help the state meet an air quality improvement goal by 2020. For that reason, many environmental groups that support the rail project also oppose diverting cap-and-trade money to it.
“We still have an opportunity to make a difference on how bad climate change will be. And the way you do that will be to take all of the available resources, you spend them now on things that get you reductions now,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. “If this had been a choice between the Golden Gate Bridge and you had the opportunity to stop typhoid at that very moment, I think the people of San Francisco would’ve stopped typhoid.”
Likewise, the Greenlining Institute does not oppose the rail project but will push lawmakers to devote cap-and-trade money to transit operations, spokesman Bruce Mirken said. The organization sponsored successful legislation two years ago requiring that a quarter of the greenhouse gas revenue be targeted to low-income and minority communities most affected by pollution.
“High-speed rail would not have been on our priority list,” Mirken said.
There also are questions about whether the money can legally be spent for high-speed rail. The state Legislative Analyst’s Office has said that although the system would eventually reduce emissions, the construction and operation would cause more pollution than it would cut for decades.
Supporters note that the California Air Resources Board, which is responsible for implementing the greenhouse gas reduction law, has continued to include high-speed rail as a component in reaching its 2020 goal.
Brown seems committed to making it happen. In releasing his budget plan this week, he said the nation’s leaders are not thinking big enough and that California should lead the way as a “generator of dreams and great initiatives.”
“I think the high-speed rail fits into that, and I think the cap-and-trade is a very good source for that,” he said. “It’s coming right from sources of pollution and going right to reduce pollution.”