Gov. Jerry Brown said Thursday that he will formally request that the Legislature approve billions of dollars to start construction of the California bullet train next year and will work hard to persuade skeptical lawmakers that the project is critical to the state’s future.
In his first extended remarks on the $98.5-billion project since a controversial business plan was unveiled last week, Brown said that the state will have a broad need for the system in the long term and that it represents a significantly cheaper alternative to additional highway and commercial aviation investments.
“As an idea, if you think of California as growing and expanding, then it fits into it,” Brown said at a meeting with The Times’ editorial board. “It is based on an optimistic assessment of where California is going.”
The California High-Speed Rail Authority last week approved a new business plan that more than doubled the project’s cost and a related financing plan that would ask for the first construction money, tapping $2.7 billion in state bonds and $3.3 billion in federal grants.
Rail officials hope the money can cover construction of a 140-mile Central Valley segment from Chowchilla to Bakersfield, though it would not pay for electrification, trains or other necessary parts of an operating system. To actually carry passengers will require more than $20 billion of additional investment in track and equipment, money that the state now does not have.
Still, the start of construction with the money in hand represents “a prudent next step,” and the state could find future sources of funding in new types of federal bonds, in state taxes or even by securing more federal funding, Brown said.
“I want to see the first segment completed in short order,” Brown said, noting that under the current plan the full scale-system would not be finished until he was 95 years old. “You can’t build something like this in one jump. We have the first step paid down.”
State Controller John Chiang’s office reported Thursday that tax receipts are about $1.5 billion lower than state budget architects anticipated through the first four months of the fiscal year.
“I think we’re in for a rough ride for the next couple of years in terms of the budget, but we are going to promote investments in the state, because I think they’re crucial,” Brown said.
Even though the cost of the project has doubled, Brown said it is manageable over the 23-year construction period.
“Lincoln built the transcontinental railroad during the Civil War, and we built the Golden Gate Bridge during the Great Depression,” Brown said.
The governor downplayed widespread criticism that the rail construction would destroy businesses, damage farms and displace homes along the route. He recalled that during his time as Oakland mayor, opposition surfaced against every building project from people concerned about traffic and those complaining about structures that would block sunlight.
“It is part of the reason we can’t get anything done in the state,” Brown said about opponents of building projects. “You don’t make an omelet unless you break the egg.”
Los Angeles Times staff writer Anthony York contributed to this report from Sacramento.