In December, with rail projects toppling like dominoes across the country, I wrote a postmortem for President Obama’s dream of a nationwide high-speed rail network. The concept was dead in Wisconsin, Florida, and Ohio—killed by Republican governors in each instance—and appeared doomed even in liberal California, which had approved a $40-plus billion Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line in 2008 only to see costs soar, obstacles mount, and voters turn against it.
On Friday, though, the Democrats in California’s state senate ignored the polls and the state’s budget problems and green-lighted $8 billion in funding for the first leg of the railroad, from Madera to Bakersfield. It’s a case of either extraordinary leadership or extraordinarily unresponsive government, given that the public opinion surveys repeatedly showed that voters would have rejected the plan if it were back on the ballot.
I’m going to call it leadership, because, as flawed and unpopular as the state’s plan is, it truly needs new transportation infrastructure to handle its still-growing population. Roads or airports might be cheaper by some measures, but high-speed rail is the only option that gives the state a realistic hope of meeting its long-term commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions (which, incredible as it may sound to the rest of the country, California actually takes seriously).
California’s project always made a lot more sense than the not-so-high-speed rail plans in Ohio and Florida, which seemed built to capitalize on free federal money more than to actually efficiently move people from one place to another. And it’s the one project in Obama’s plan that can realistically stand on its own—provided it’s fully built out. The others, in the Midwest and South, were all baby steps toward a still-very-hypothetical broader regional or national network.
Conservatives will slam the first leg of California’s project as a train to nowhere, and it’s true that few are clamoring for pricey passenger trains from Bakersfield to Madera. For Gov. Jerry Brown, this was a matter of sticking an $8 billion foot in the budget door—the Central Valley leg is the easiest to build, and will be the hardest to walk away from if the political climate stays sour.