On the issue of high-speed rail (as on so many other issues), Gov. Jerry Brown is trapped in a fix of his own making. The governor -- by aiming so low and caving to public misimpressions about government spending -- has made it impossible for himself to make big changes. Compared to his rhetoric about the need for cuts and very modest changes, even mildly ambitious projects look way too big.
Which is why Brown's attempt to save the high-speed rail project by cutting the cost of its first phase from an estimated $100 billion or so to an estimated $70 billion or so is doomed to failure. Either number looks awfully big, especially when the number is considered in isolation. That's an awful lot of money for a project that won't reach Sacramento or San Diego.
No, the way to make a project like high-speed rail look small, and less scary, is to pursue even bigger projects. Compare high-speed rail, for example, to the state's current infrastructure deficit -- the sum total of all the infrastructure improvement and maintenance the state needs in highways, roads, buildings, water, rail, airports, electrical grid and the capital needs of K-12 and higher education.
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That deficit, according to recent research conducted for the Think Long Committee for California is... drum roll... $765 billion.
Now that's a big number. Indeed, the high-speed rail project's estimated cost is less than 10 percent of that.
So if you want high-speed rail, the best method would be to include it in a massive plan to close that deficit. Yes, $765 billion is a ton of money, and paying for all that infrastructure would require all manner of methods, from private-public partnerships, sales and long-term leases of infrastructure, user fees, taxes and probably some governance reform. As part of that package, no one is going to worry much about high-speed rail. There's so much more to worry about.
Making high-speed rail part of a massive state infrastructure effort also would diminish opposition from various infrastructure interests and efforts who wonder -- with good reason -- why the state would prioritize a high-risk new train project when it has so many existing unmet needs.
Could Brown do it? Yes, but it would force the governor to reassess his approach to politics, to stop talking about cuts and to stop playing to public misconceptions about spending and the public. It would force him to embrace big goals and plans -- in governance reform and in infrastructure -- because you can't make significant changes unless you're willing to think big.