Gov. Jerry Brown began his fourth term as governor by acting on a promise to bring a bullet train to California, signing a symbolic piece of railroad track at a groundbreaking ceremony held on an empty lot in downtown Fresno Tuesday.
Brown was flanked by construction workers in hard hats and college students who’ve started a Twitter campaign promoting the bullet train. They were some of the 1,200 guests invited to the groundbreaking, including officials from Japanese National Railways, which has operated its Shinkansen high-speed rail service for half a century.
For all the people applauding him and the planned train system, Brown knows there are plenty of critics who would like to derail the plan. He tackled those concerns right off the bat, saying that initially he, too, had doubts about the project.
" 'Cause I wasn’t quite sure where the hell are we going to get the rest of the money. But we’re going to get it. Don’t worry about it,” Brown said, as some in the audience chuckled. “We’re going to get it. We’ve overcome a lot of obstacles.”
Those successes include prevailing in lawsuits that sought to stop the rail line and securing one source of funding by tapping into California’s cap-and-trade system for pollution credits. But big questions remain about how to pay for the entire $68 billion project and how long it will take to build.
Rail officials say the system won’t be complete until 2030. Brown had an answer for that, too.
“It’s kind of touch and go," he told the crowd. "Am I going to make it to the end here? I’m going to do everything I can to make sure we get there, 'cause I’ll be 92 in 2030. I’m working out, I’m pumping iron and eating vegetables."
And Brown also told the crowd that every big California infrastructure project has had determined opponents, but history proves them wrong.
"The Golden Gate Bridge was attacked," he said. "BART -- the mayor of Berkeley said that was a complete boondoggle, this thing called BART. Now BART is getting more passengers every year. It’s vital."
The ceremony in Fresno featured a parade of federal, state and local officials praising California’s bold approach.
“Thanks to high-speed rail, by 2040 vehicles in California will drive 10 million fewer miles every day,” said Gina McCarthy, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Who wants to drive, anyways? Take a train!”
It's no accident Brown chose Fresno as the site for the groundbreaking. It’s the one city in the San Joaquin Valley that has actively welcomed the bullet train and its promise of construction jobs.
Just across the street from the ceremony, Fresno city planners and rail officials took reporters on a tour of the lot where they plan to build downtown Fresno’s bullet train station.
“Fresno was founded as a railroad town. The Victorian building behind you was the train station site where this town was started, and so we’re hoping this new facility will be the rebirth of a new Fresno,” said city planner Dan Zack, pointing to a recently demolished building that was once a raisin-packing factory.
Other counties and cities in the Central Valley have criticized high-speed rail’s impact on farmland and its ballooning price tag. A small but tenacious group of protesters held signs and tried to interrupt the speakers at the ceremony by shouting, "Show us the money!"
That sentiment is echoed by critics like Quentin Kopp, former chair of the High-Speed Rail Authority, who says he’s heartbroken that Brown’s current rail plan doesn’t meet the expectations of voters who passed the bullet train bond measure back in 2008.
“What’s he breaking ground for?” said Kopp. “It looks like a pure propaganda show. There are so many impediments both in terms of environmental review and in terms of lack of money to complete this first section. I am puzzled why he would go through this charade.”
But it’s not a charade to the bulldozer operators and construction workers who are starting to demolish buildings and move utility lines near Fresno.
Ultimately, the bullet train is supposed to be carrying people from San Francisco to Los Angeles. But the plans call for the first trains to run from Merced to Burbank, starting in 2022.