In summary

Someday California’s high-speed rail system will be regarded like the Golden Gate Bridge, as an icon, and BART, which has helped reduce Bay Area traffic.

By Jim Beall and

State Sen. Jim Beall, a Democrat from San Jose, represents the 15th Senate District, senator.beall@senate.ca.gov. He is chair of the Transportation Committee.

Scott Wiener, Special to CalMatters

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, represents the 11th Senate District, senator.wiener@senate.ca.gov. He is chair of the Housing Committee.

California’s High-Speed Rail project is under fire again, but history shows us that major infrastructure projects are almost always controversial. 

Before it was built, the Golden Gate Bridge was derided as financially unsound, legally dubious and an aesthetic blight. BART was deemed “the ultimate money drain.” Today opponents of the high-speed rail shorthand their objections: “boondoggle.”

Mega-infrastructure projects are hard. The bigger the project, the harder it gets. And California hasn’t tackled an infrastructure project as big or as bold as high-speed rail since the building of our state highway system more than 50 years ago. 

Yet despite all the handwringing, the political infighting, the calls to cancel the project and redirect funds, progress marches steadily forward. The High-Speed Rail Authority is systematically and transparently working its way through full environmental clearance for the entire statewide system by the end of 2022 so that as continued funding becomes available, the state is ready to build. 

What’s not reported often is that this project is undertaking the largest environmental clearance effort in the country. The authority continues to make steady progress on this effort, with a schedule that shows they’ll meet the federally mandated 2022 deadline. 

Construction of the high-speed rail system is fully underway at 32 job sites across several counties along the first 119 miles of the system. This stretch will be the heart of the system and the testing ground for the nation’s first electrified high-speed rail trains. As of this month, 4,000 men and women have been put to work on construction jobs in the Central Valley because of the high-speed rail project. Rather than joining the swollen ranks of unemployed Californians, these men and women are providing for themselves and their families and helping build California’s future.  

Here in the Bay Area, thanks to $700 million of investment from High-Speed Rail, Caltrain is already working on its part of the project: electrifying the peninsula corridor. Ultimately Caltrain will share tracks with high-speed rail trains for the ride between San Francisco and Gilroy. The High-Speed Rail Authority is also collaborating with local agencies to bring trains to the Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco and to reimagine the future of Diridon Station in San Jose.

This project is moving along, and contrary to recent reports, legislative oversight of the project has been consistent and ongoing. The California state Senate and Assembly each appoint members to sit on the authority board and receive regular updates on the authority’s plans and progress. The Legislature also holds final authority over release of bond funds, a major source of project funding.  

Both sides of the aisle seem to agree that infrastructure projects are essential. Both sides agree that we need jobs. Yet somehow this infrastructure project, which is not only creating jobs but also connecting the major economic regions of our state – while tackling climate change, traffic and affordable housing – continues to remain controversial.  The time is now to move forward on bringing this critical investment into reality.

These days the Golden Gate Bridge is an iconic symbol of San Francisco. And it’s hard to imagine what Bay Area traffic would look like without BART. Someday high-speed rail will hold a similar place in California’s economy and vitality. 

We can build things in California. It takes persistence, patience, political will, long-term vision and thoughtful public discourse. And it would help if we can all agree to drop the term “boondoggle” and start recognizing the progress that’s happening right in our home state.

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