Brown backs high-speed rail, more green energy

Source: Anne C. Mulkern • Posted: Thursday, January 19, 2012

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) today backed the Golden State’s beleaguered high-speed rail project, calling on the Legislature to approve money for construction.

In his State of the State address, Brown said a bullet train connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles is necessary even at its estimated $98.5 billion cost.

“If you believe that California will continue to grow, as I do, and that millions more people will be living in our state, this is a wise investment,” Brown said. “Building new runways and expanding our airports and highways is the only alternative. That is not cheaper and will face even more political opposition.”

The endorsement came in a speech filled with support for green energy. The governor cheered the state’s moves on renewable power and pledged that they would continue. He said those policies were needed because “fossil fuels, particularly foreign oil, create ever-rising costs to our economy and to our health.”

Brown is likely to hit opposition on some of his goals. The state faces a budget deficit and continued program cuts. Brown has asked voters in November to agree to raise the sales tax and rates on the highest earners in order to fund education and public safety.

One Republican, responding to Brown’s speech, said the state could not afford high-speed rail

“This is not the 1960s, when we had the ability to designate specific funding sources to build water and freeway infrastructure,” said state Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, who has introduced legislation to halt the sale of bonds authorized to fund the train (Greenwire, Jan. 10). “We are broke, and for the governor to insist on dreaming big by spending untold billions on a high-speed rail network, in a location where there is no ridership or potential for continued funding, just does not fit with reality.”

Brown in his speech compared the planned bullet train to other mega-projects that were initially derided as impossible to achieve, including the interstate highway system, a major California water project and the Panama and Suez canals.

“The critics were wrong then, and they’re wrong now,” Brown said to scattered applause.

Brown is expected to ask the Legislature to approve the sale of $2.7 billion in bonds to start construction this year. The bullet train also has received a commitment for $3.5 billion in federal funding.

But there are new questions about the venture. A peer review group earlier this month called the High-Speed Rail Authority’s financial plan “an immense financial risk” (E&ENews PM, Jan. 3). The project’s cost has ballooned to three times the amount projected when voters in 2008 approved Proposition 1A, a $9.95 billion bond measure to fund the train. There is no money source for the endeavor beyond the Prop 1A funds and the federal commitment.

Several California Republicans have said they want to stop the development. Democratic Sen. Joe Simitian — chairman of the budget subcommittee on environment, energy and transportation — wants to delay it for a year. In Congress, both Republicans and Democrats have called for a nonpartisan Government Accountability Office review of the project (Greenwire, Jan. 5).

High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Roelof van Ark resigned last week, and board member Tom Umberg stepped down as chairman, which many saw as Brown’s effort to steer the undertaking onto a new course (Greenwire, Jan. 13).

Cap and trade

The governor praised California’s efforts on climate and renewable power. The state has set a goal of making one-third of its energy renewable by 2020. It also passed a groundbreaking climate law that includes a cap-and-trade program that starts next year.

“The plan will require less carbon in our fuels, more efficient technologies across a broad swath of businesses and a carefully designed cap-and-trade system that uses market incentives instead of prescriptive mandates,” Brown said.

The state as a result has pulled in “billions of dollars in clean-tech venture capital investments,” he added, with 40 percent of all such investments happening in California.

“My commitment is to continue these innovative programs and build on them in the coming year in every way that I can,” Brown added

Brown said the state will meet its green power mandate.

“In the beginning of the computer industry, jobs were numbered in the thousands,” Brown said. “Now they are in the millions. The same thing will happen with green jobs. And California is positioned perfectly to reap the economic benefits that will inevitably flow.”

The governor’s goals are too costly, Harkey said.

“Growing state government and adding to our debt to do so is not the way to reduce California’s mountain of debt or increase employment,” she said.