With the cost of the state's high-speed rail project rising dramatically, a new public opinion poll shows that a clear majority of California's registered voters would reject the proposal if given a second chance to vote on it today.
Released Tuesday, the poll by Field Research Corp. in San Francisco found that 64% of those surveyed want another public vote on the $98-billion project and that 59% of respondents would oppose it because of changes in its cost and completion date.
The estimated price tag for the 520-mile system between San Francisco and Los Angeles is now $98 billion to $117 billion — at least triple the initial projection of $33 billion and over double a more recent estimate of $43 billion. Planners have extended the construction deadline from 2020 to 2033.
"If there were a revote, its chances of passage given this poll are not very good," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll.
Meanwhile in Washington, a barrage of sharp criticism was leveled at Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who appeared Tuesday at a hearing by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on the Obama administration's high-speed rail program.
Committee Chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who has long asserted that he supports the concept of high-speed rail, said the California project was the one hope for a true bullet train but now appears to be in "disarray."
Voters approved the project when they passed Proposition 1A by almost 53% in November 2008. The ballot measure authorized $9 billion in state bonds to help pay for construction.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority wants to begin work next year on a length of track between Merced and Bakersfield in the Central Valley.
Project supporters and rail officials said voters should not give up on the project because it has attracted $3 billion in federal aid, will create 100,000 jobs and will modernize California's increasingly congested transportation networks.
"It is easy to understand voter frustration on a lot of things at this very moment, but it shouldn't dictate the future of California's transportation infrastructure," said state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, (D-Sacramento). "A knee-jerk reaction to a snapshot in time would be a mistake."
At the congressional hearing, LaHood, the lone Republican on President Obama's Cabinet, lectured the committee that the U.S. population will grow by tens of millions in coming decades. "We need to do something or we will be crushed under the weight of our own expansion," he warned.
LaHood has urged Gov. Jerry Brown not to back down from the bullet train project. "We will not be dissuaded by naysayers," LaHood told the committee. "We will not."
The committee repeatedly raised concerns that California is more than $85 billion short of the funding needed to complete the system. LaHood repeated a now-standard rationale that the interstate highway system did not have all the money on hand when construction began about five decades ago.
"We have problems with the route that was chosen," Mica told LaHood, adding that only the northeast corridor between Boston and Washington has the population density to economically support high-speed trains.
In the California poll, Field Research interviewed a random sample of 1,000 registered voters from Nov. 15 to 27. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
Of voters who approved the ballot proposition, the poll found that 53% would still vote for it today, 37% would say no and 10% are undecided.
Republicans and nonpartisans were the most opposed to high-speed rail, with 73% and 61% respectively saying they would vote no. Forty-nine percent of Democrats also said they would reject the project, with 40% saying they would approve it and 11% undecided.
The results are similar to those of a public opinion survey done earlier this year by Probolsky Research, a polling firm based in Newport Beach that specializes in politics and government affairs.
Probolsky's survey found that 62.4% of likely voters in California would reject the high-speed rail project if given a second chance to vote on it. The proposal also came in last in a list of voters' spending priorities.
Both polls indicate that support has been eroding for the project during the last 16 months. In July 2010, the high-speed rail authority released a more favorable poll by Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates and Public Opinion Strategies. It found that 76% of Californians supported the project, including 34% who wanted high-speed rail to proceed as quickly as possible.
The growing costs and declining support for the project, however, have prompted calls for a revote. They include legislation proposed by state Sen. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) that would give voters a chance to withdraw the previously approved funding.
Many voters feel "they've really been had," LaMalfa said.