Today is a good day to talk about Jerry Brown’s legacy.
This morning, he was sworn in to his fourth term. Already California’s longest serving governor, he can look forward to another four years to build on his legacy. And tomorrow, state leaders gather in Fresno for a “groundbreaking” ceremony for the so-called High Speed Rail project, considered by many to be Governor Brown’s signature “legacy” project. Thus, the idea of the governor’s legacy is ripe for discussion.
Certainly no one can begrudge the governor for wanting a legacy. He has had a long and successful career at the top of California politics. Of course he wants a legacy, as does anyone who gets into the business of government. Those of us privileged to be elected to office hope to make a difference and would like to leave a legacy of having done so.
Unfortunately, the High Speed Rail project is a very bad candidate for a legacy project.
First, the project likely does not pencil out. It is hard to find on planet earth a high speed rail project anywhere that is self-financing. Even absent the high speed component, most public rail of much significance requires government subsidies. That would be especially true in automobile dependent California. Moreover, any projection that does have High Speed Rail somehow escaping the need for a constant influx of government dollars, depends on unreasonably rosy ridership estimates. Weather forecasts and Five Year Plans are notoriously unreliable coming from governments. Even more so the government’s guess as to how many people, sometime in the middle decades of this century, will ride a train that does not yet exist.
Second, the technology to fully realize the vision of high speed rail also does not yet exist. While there are certainly high speed trains in other places – Japan and France, most notably – California’s plans do not translate entirely; success of the governor’s project will depend on technological advancements that might happen, might not happen, or might happen on a timeline slower than necessary for the timely completion of the project.
Third, legal challenges abound, and will continue. Financing within the constraints of the voter approved bonds, right of way issues, eminent domain proceedings, and environmental concerns are some of the more daunting legal issues facing the project. All need to be resolved, no easy task in our hyper-litigious state, before the governor’s High Speed Rail vision can be realized.
Fortunately, though, there are much better opportunities for Gov. Brown to leave a lasting legacy than the dogged pursuit of an unlikely ever to be realized High Speed Rail project. In fact, to see those opportunities, we need only turn to the administration of Gov. Brown’s father.
In the late fifties and early sixties, Gov. Pat Brown tackled two important projects: higher education and infrastructure. The master plan for higher education set the three branches of California’s higher education on a sustainable path of excellence that has lasted for generations. Similarly, investments in roads and bridges and ports, and in the state’s electrical and water infrastructure, facilitated the state’s growth over the last half of the twentieth century.
But times have changed and the needs of the twenty-first century must be addressed. A new train wholly fails to address those needs. Instead, a fitting legacy in my mind would be for the current Gov. Brown to realize for this century the promise of higher education and infrastructure development that his father realized for the last. Specifically, we need in California to update the master plan for higher education to make certain our colleges and universities are teaching and training and researching appropriate for the needs of tomorrow not yesterday. Higher education must partner with businesses around the state – not just our high tech businesses – so that industry knows the students knocking on their doors looking for jobs in fact have the skills industry needs to do those jobs.
In addition, the dollars that are going to be spent on high speed rail, and many more dollars the state will spend in the next four years, should be directed to upgrading the current transportation infrastructure. We don’t need fanciful new transportation projects when the current roads and freeways that people know and use are inadequate and poorly maintained. So too the state’s water and power infrastructures face critical capacity problems. Those problems will require significant capital investments and visionary leadership to solve.
A truly lasting and visionary legacy for the twenty-first century is out there for Gov. Brown to seize.
Assembly Member Wagner represents the central Orange County cities of Anaheim, Irvine, Lake Forest, Orange, Tustin, Villa Park, and surrounding areas