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SACRAMENTO — Across the country, the era of ambitious public works projects seems to be over. Governments are shelving or rejecting plans for highways, railroads and big buildings under the weight of collapsing revenues and voters’ resistance.
But not California.
With a brashness and ambition that evoke a California of a generation ago, state leaders — starting with Gov. Jerry Brown — have rallied around a plan to build a 520-mile high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco, cutting the trip from a six-hour drive to a train ride of two hours and 38 minutes. And they are doing it in the face of what might seem like insurmountable political and fiscal obstacles.
The pro-train constituency has not been derailed by a state report this month that found the cost of the bullet train tripling to $98 billion for a project that would not be finished until 2033, by news that Republicans in Congress are close to eliminating federal high-speed rail financing this year, by opposition from California farmers and landowners upset about tracks tearing through their communities or by questions about how much the state or private businesses will be able to contribute.
The project has been mocked by editorial boards across the country — “Somebody please stop this train,” The Washington Post wrote — while Republicans here have denounced it as a waste. In an unfortunate turn of timing, state officials announced this month that revenues this year were so far behind projections that California was likely to have to impose $2 billion in cuts in January.
“This will go down in history as one of the great white elephants in California history,” said Bob Dutton, the Republican leader of the State Senate. “It’s a boondoggle. The state cannot afford it.”
But for many Californians, struggling through a bleak era that has led some people to wonder if the state’s golden days are behind it, this project goes to the heart of the state’s pioneering spirit, recalling grand public investments in universities, water systems, roads and parks that once defined California as the leading edge of the nation. That was a time symbolized, in part, by another governor named Brown, Mr. Brown’s father, Pat.
“It’s not putting someone on the moon, but it’s a state version of making a giant leap forward,” said Bob Blumenfield, a Democrat in the State Assembly. “We in California pioneered the public project. It’s not a luxury; it’s a critical piece of infrastructure.”
The governor has enthusiastically embraced the plan, no matter that at 73, he seems unlikely to be around for a ribbon-cutting ceremony that is projected to be more than 20 years away. “California’s high-speed rail project will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, linking California’s population centers and avoiding the huge problems of massive airport and highway expansion,” Mr. Brown said.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority projected that the bullet train would create 100,000 jobs and argued that one way or another, California would have to spend money to develop its transportation system to accommodate a population increase of an estimated 25 million over the next 20 years.
“Look, it’s really difficult when you talk about something of this scale,” said John A. Pérez, the speaker of the State Assembly. “There never is a right time to do it. The reality is the longer you wait, the more it costs you.”
“California has always been an ambitious investor in infrastructure,” Mr. Pérez said. “Twenty years down the line, people will look back at it and say, ‘What took them so long?’ ”
The authority, at the prodding of appointees by Mr. Brown, issued what was, by all accounts, a report on the railroad that was more realistic than previous ones had been, including the higher cost and lower ridership projections. It proposed that the project be built in phases, and that no phase be started until all the financing was in place.
The first phase would be a 130-mile stretch from Bakersfield to just south of Chowchilla in central California, at a cost of just over $6 billion; of that, $2.6 billion would come from a $9 billion high-speed rail bond passed by California voters in 2008, and $3.5 billion from federal stimulus money.
“This business plan takes us a step forward,” said Alan Lowenthal, the chairman of the State Senate Select Committee on High-Speed Rail. “We are more cautiously optimistic. But these are staggering amounts of money.”
Emily Rusch, the director of the California Public Interest Research Group, said: “I actually walked away from the new business plan cautiously optimistic about the project’s future. There’s no question that California needs to invest in more and better transportation.”
Yet serious objections remain.
The authority said it chose the relatively remote section in the Central Valley as the first leg to be built, even though few people there are looking to use a railroad, so that construction could begin next year and meet deadlines for using federal money. But critics suggest that the real motivation was to get the spur in place, calculating that future legislatures would not be able to abandon the project before it reached major population centers.
“What they are hoping is that this will be to high-speed rail what Vietnam was to foreign policy: that once you’re in there, you have to get in deeper,” said Richard White, a professor of history at Stanford University. “The most logical outcome to me is we are going to have a white elephant in the San Joaquin Valley.”
There is no plan on how to finance the project once the bond and federal money is exhausted, beyond a hope of private investment and public money during flusher times. Dan Richard, one of two people appointed by Mr. Brown to the rail authority, said that under the plan, each leg would be built only after the financing source was identified and would produce enough revenue to cover the costs of its operation. Therefore, he said, “I’m not as concerned about not knowing immediately where the money is coming from.”
Beyond that, several experts suggested that the train would never attract the promised ridership, in no small part because unlike, say, the Amtrak Northeast Corridor, the bullet train would go into cities that do not have particularly extensive public transit networks, forcing people to rent cars once they arrived. Low ridership would undercut the economic and environmental benefits that are part of the argument for the project.
“The whole thing doesn’t make sense unless you have the riders,” said Richard Geddes, an associate professor at Cornell University. “Based on historical experience, I tend to be skeptical of the rider projections that I see.”
The Legislature is required to vote to release the bond money in order for the project to go forward. Mr. Lowenthal said that while staggered by the cost, he was looking for a way to make the project work.
“We don’t want to give this up,” he said. “We’re a state that wants to build it. We want the responsibility. We just want to make sure that what we do is successful.”
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