Voters have turned against California bullet train, poll shows

California voters are losing faith in a proposed $68-billion bullet train project, saying the state has higher priorities, they would seldom use the service and they would halt public borrowing for construction if they could, a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found.

A strong majority of voters have turned against the project just as Gov. Jerry Brown is pressuring the Legislature to green-light the start of construction in the Central Valley later this year, a major step in the plan to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco with high-speed rail service by about 2028.

In a state renowned for betting big on mega-infrastructure projects, including the world’s most famous freeways and canals that move oceans of water across hundreds of miles, the fast-approaching decision on the bullet train project marks a historic Golden State moment.

Whether eroding public support will sway the Legislature is unclear. Brown, the Obama administration, labor unions and Democratic leaders, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, are ramping up pressure on key state senators to cast aside doubts and commit funding this summer for an initial 130-mile section of track.

But the new poll numbers show that proceeding could put lawmakers on the wrong side of public opinion. Across the state, 55% of the voters want the bond issue that was approved in 2008 placed back on the ballot, and 59% say they now would vote against it.

Since voters approved that $9-billion borrowing plan, the state and national economic outlook has dimmed and some of the promises about the bullet train have been compromised. Its projected cost has roughly doubled, and it will now share track with slower commuter and freight trains in some areas. Powerful agriculture groups and freight railroads have asserted that proposed routes would damage their interests and compromise safety. Churches, schools, businesses and homeowners are fighting the project.

Brown and a coalition of bullet train backers have argued that the project requires a long-term optimistic view of California’s future. Proponents say that highways and airports will reach their capacity someday and that the state must be prepared.

Said Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, citing improvements to the plan: “This is a large, complex project, and we believe that once Californians learn more about the positive turnaround at the authority, they will embrace the improved direction.”

Some lawmakers agree on the need for the rail service but are concerned that the existing plan is flawed and could set the state up for a big disappointment, if not financial disaster. The decline in public enthusiasm for the proposal appears to reflect more than a short-term fluctuation in sentiment, which might be expected and even discounted by officials trying to execute a decades-long project deemed crucial to the state’s economic future.

“You have a situation where general financial pressure and cynicism toward the government has narrowed the support,” said Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Democratic polling firm that conducted the survey jointly with American Viewpoint, a Republican-affiliated firm.

Indeed, the poll shows that concerns about the project extend broadly across regions, ethnic groups, income brackets and even political affiliations. In Southern California, 67% of voters said they would reject issuing bullet train bonds if they could vote again.

Although organized labor has been among the biggest proponents of the project, 56% of union households now would reject the state funding plan, the poll found. Even among Democrats, the strongest backers of the project, only 43% would support the bond in a new vote, while 47% would oppose it. And 76% of Republicans would vote it down.

“Voters are having some buyer’s remorse over this,” said David Kanevsky of American Viewpoint.

The poll reflected clashing viewpoints expressed at recent public hearings held by the rail authority: While critics say that the project is seriously flawed, supporters argue that people desperately need jobs.

“It costs too much and we need the money in other places,” said poll respondent Robert Coplin, a 49-year-old unemployed bus boy and dishwasher who identifies himself as a Republican. “We should fix the roads, fix the levees and reduce the deficit. The rail makes no sense at all.”

Patricia Bradford, a Democrat from the Inland Empire, doubts she will ever use the train but nonetheless is a supporter. “They need to get people jobs. People have kids and families. They are living paycheck to paycheck. Of course, spend some money, create some jobs,” she said.

Backers say the bullet train will help California’s transportation system catch up with those in Europe, Japan and China. Yet the poll found that most voters don’t expect to use it.

Sixty-nine percent said they would never or hardly ever ride it. Zero percent said they would use it more than once a week. Public opinion surveys cannot predict the revenues and ridership a rail service might generate. The poll results raise questions about whether the system would serve as a robust commuter network, allowing people to live in small towns and work in big cities or vice versa. On the other hand, 33% of respondents said they would prefer a bullet train over an airplane or car on trips between L.A. and the Bay Area.

The fare for the premium nonstop service, pegged in the rail authority’s plan at $123 one way, gives many potential customers pause. Andres Ruiz of South Gate, who has worked in an aluminum foundry for 35 years, drives to San Francisco three or four times a year. Ideally, he’d like to take a train but questions whether he could afford tickets for his whole family. “I don’t think the project is a very important thing,” he said.

A majority of voters agree, the poll found. Across the state, 55% of the respondents said the state has bigger priorities than borrowing money to build a bullet train. And 43% said they would rather spend the money on improvements to rail transportation in their own area. Only 32% said the bullet train is a higher priority.

Both the Republican and Democratic pollsters agreed that souring public views on the train could jeopardize voter support for the governor’s November ballot measure to increase taxes.

“The deficits are scary,” agreed Dan Williams of Needles, a 50-year-old independent voter. “To me, this rail project is among the very lowest priorities for the state.”

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said that if voters “connect the dots” between a tax increase and spending on a controversial bullet train, “it could completely undermine support for Brown’s initiative.”

The USC Dornsife/L.A. Times survey contacted 1,002 registered voters in mid-May. Two other polls last year also found shrinking support for the project, which was approved by 52.7% of voters in 2008. A third poll this year also found likely voters opposed the project, though adults in general favor it by a small margin.