High-Speed Rail’s Turning Point: California Assembly Asserts Bipartisan Control

Last Updated: February 28, 2021By

By David Schonbrunn, President, TRAC

This past Thursday, June 11th, there was an unanimous bipartisan vote by the State Assembly to adopt House Resolution 97. Bipartisan votes like HR-97 are exceptionally rare on issues like the biggest construction project in the State’s history. This resolution is doubly historic in that it places a major obstacle in front of California’s troubled high-speed rail project, effectively rejecting the California High Speed Rail Authority’s (CHSRA) draft 2020 Business Plan.

CHSRA had been moving towards signing a multibillion-dollar contract this year that would lock in the electrification of the Merced-Bakersfield route selected by Governor Newsom and advanced by HSR staff. House [Assembly] Resolution 97 directs CHSRA to hold off on adopting the electrification contract until the Assembly has voted on an appropriation. The Assembly asserted its role of overseeing the project through its control of the project’s funding.

It is important to note that the resolution does not go to the Senate or to the Governor. Without the Assembly’s cooperation, CHSRA’s flawed project cannot obtain further funding. By threatening the withholding of funding, the Assembly has taken control of the project, which now cannot proceed without the Assembly’s explicit approval and sign-off.

The balance of power on HSR has changed. One house of the Legislature has found its voice, and has asserted its authority over the HSR project. After 8 years of the Legislature being cowed by Jerry Brown, this turn of events is absolutely stunning.

In my opinion, CHSRA’s CEO Brian Kelly overreached politically, in an attempt to stare down Southern California Assembly members who didn’t want to fund electrification because they were dubious about the direction of HSR. I wrote in the most recent issue of California Rail News (https://calrailnews.org/current/) that Kelly was daring these Assembly members to stop him. Now CHSRA has been stopped, quite forcefully. CHSRA’s plans are now worthless. Kelly will have to negotiate some kind of revised project now, or his project and agency are history…

I heard enough Assembly members talking about thoughtful alternatives to the Governor’s project that I am more heartened than any time in my past 16 years of opposition to CHSRA intransigence. The speeches for the Floor debate on the resolution were extraordinary and are well-worth readers’ time. They can be seen here.

It will be interesting to see how Governor Newsom will respond to this political sea change. He doesn’t control legislators the way Jerry Brown once did, and I think he will need to negotiate what the future of CHSRA will be. TRAC has reached out to the Governor’s staff to help get this process started.

TRAC now sees its agenda finally moving forward after many years of frustration. As TRAC has stated many times for many years, we want to see Cap & Trade funds spent on intercity routes that are effective competitors to auto travel. We also want to encourage private sector investment in rail projects, including HSR. It is certain that private sector investments will look nothing like CHSRA’s project, They will be driven by travel markets and economics, rather than political horse-trading and cronyism.