The future is on track

Voters narrowly approve high-speed rail bond measure after a perilous run-up to the election


On the day after the election, retired judge Quentin Kopp was finally able to exhale and enjoy his martini, even though there's still much work to be done in the coming years creating a high-speed rail system for California.

"I feel relaxed for the first time since June," Kopp, the proud father of high-speed rail in the state, told the Guardian at the Thirsty Bear brewpub in San Francisco shortly after arriving to an enthusiastic ovation from the large crowd of project engineers and contractors who had gathered to celebrate on the night after the election.

Proposition 1A — the $10 billion bond measure that finally launches high-speed rail in California, the most expensive and ambitious public works project in state history — got the nod from about 5.4 million voters, or a too-close-for-comfort 52.3 percent of the total. Combined with federal, state, local, and private funding, the measure will finance the San Francisco-to-Anaheim segment of a system that is eventually planned to stretch from Sacramento to San Diego.

The previous few months had been an emotional roller coaster for Kopp and other high-speed rail supporters. "It was like The Perils of Pauline," said Kopp, who sponsored the project as a state legislator representing San Francisco in the mid-90s and now chairs the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the agency charged with building the project.

Last year, Kopp had to overcome the resistance from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who sought to delay the bond measure for a third straight year (see "The silver bullet train," 4/17/07). This year, Kopp had to fight through many setbacks, starting with Schwarzenegger-allied CHSRA board member David Crane's insistence on the creation of a detailed business plan before the project could go before voters.

To incorporate that plan into the bond measure required new legislation, Assembly Bill 3034, which replaced the former Prop. 1 with the new Prop. 1A and included new fiscal standards. Meanwhile, the CHSRA in July voted to choose Pacheco Pass over Altamont Pass as the preferred Bay Area alignment, triggering controversy and a lawsuit (see "High-speed rail on track," 7/16/08).

Although high-speed rail still appeared to enjoy strong support in the California Legislature, AB 3034 was stalled by partisan bickering and appeared doomed to miss a key legislative deadline. Kopp and supportive legislators, mostly notably Assembly member Fiona Ma, managed to get the legislation through, only to again be stymied when Schwarzenegger announced he would sign no legislation until a budget was approved.

Kopp persuaded the governor to make an exception for AB 3034 and things started to look good, with the measure ready for voters and polling data showing a healthy margin of support. "Then the financial markets collapsed and we lost 10 points," Kopp recalled. That apparent voter anxiety over big-ticket expenditures was compounded by campaign fundraising drying up and newspapers in regions outside the initial project area urging readers to vote against the measure.

"From there, it was tight all the way," said Kopp, noting that by election night, "I didn't think it would pass."

But on the positive side, the campaign against the measure was weak, particularly after the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association blew its wad in June on an ill-fated ballot measure which attacked eminent domain laws and rent control. The closeness of the poll numbers caused the thousands of contract employees who will work on the high-speed rail project to take active roles campaigning for Prop.