Does $6 Gas Make Californians Want High-Speed ​​Rail?

Supporters of California’s beleaguered high-speed rail project have had little to cheer about with soaring costs and reduced service, but a poll released Thursday shows a solid majority of voters still want to go go ahead and finish the job.

The Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll found that 56% of registered voters want the state to continue building the HSR project, though support splits sharply along partisan lines, with 73% Democrats, 25% Republicans and 54% of those without a party. preference in favor.

“We tried to present the problem as it is now,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll, who noted the rising costs, schedule and reduced service in his question to voters. “In this context, voters are saying keep going.”

In 2008, nearly 53% of California voters approved $9.95 billion in bonds to begin designing and building a high-speed rail system that promised to transport passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in just two hours. and 40 minutes by 2030. At the time, the system was expected to cost $46 billion.

Costs for the entire project have since soared to $105 billion, according to the California High Speed ​​Rail Authority’s latest business plan, which calls for trains operating solely from Bakersfield to Merced by 2030. The trains wouldn’t reach the Bay Area until at least 2033, however, the rail authority lacks funding to move the project forward outside of the Central Valley.

The Bay Area segment would see trains travel through a Pacheco Pass tunnel to Gilroy and San Jose where they would share tracks with Caltrain, slowing their top speed from 220mph to 110mph.

The poll comes as support for the bill in the state capitol has waned and critics have called for giving voters another chance to weigh in. Gov. Gavin Newsom, in his 2019 State of the State Address, suggested cutting back on the project because “there’s not a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone San Francisco to LA”

And though Newsom has since called for keeping the project moving and completing the rail line through the Central Valley, influential lawmakers like Assembly Speaker D-Lakewood Anthony Rendon have pushed back, telling the Los Angeles Times in 2019 that “any project that doesn’t have a significant amount of service in the larger areas of the state doesn’t make much sense.

Rendon’s office did not respond to questions about the poll Thursday. But Elizabeth Alexis, co-founder of the Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design group, said Thursday the poll reflected voter support for public transit, not necessarily a project she says is doomed to fall short of expectations.

“Who doesn’t want that, right? said Alexis. “But people shouldn’t take this as license to move forward with the current plan, but as inspiration to rethink how we do it so that one day it can actually deliver what Californians want. “

California High Speed ​​​​Rail Authority chief executive Brian Kelly said that while other surveys over the years have found similar support, he found the latest poll “encouraging because we’ve had to reframe ” the project over the years.

“I tried to be very upfront with the audience about our challenges,” Kelly said. “People know there will be challenges.”

The poll noted a host of concerns hanging over voters in the state. Housing affordability was the top concern for 31%, followed by homelessness for 29%, crime and public safety for 23%, and gas prices for 21% of respondents. According to American Automobile Associationgas averaged $5.719 a gallon in California on Thursday, nearly $2 higher than the national average of $4.074.

The poll found that recent gas price increases are a very or somewhat serious problem for 69% of voters, even more so for those on modest incomes, with 52% of those earning less than $40,000 a year qualifying it as very serious problem for them and their families. .

But the poll also found that these high gas prices were not causing voters to take public transit, but rather that they would drive less. Overall, 43% said they were very likely to drive less in town and cut down on car trips on weekends and holidays due to gas prices. That figure rose to 66% among voters who said gas prices were a very serious issue.

Yet only 11% said high gas prices would encourage them to use public transport more. When asked why, the poll found that 45% said public transit was inconvenient to where they worked or needed to get to, 39% said it took them longer to get to get where they needed to go, 35% said it was inconvenient where they lived and 34% said they felt unsafe on buses and trains.

“It’s not an easy transition out of your car for most people,” DiCamillo said. “But driving less is in your control.”

The findings suggest potential political risk for ruling Democrats in California heading into the fall election, IGS co-director Eric Schickler said.

“The sheer number of voters who view rising gas prices as a serious issue suggests that Democrats, both in Sacramento and nationally, need to develop responses that those voters can understand and find credible,” said Schickler said.

But DiCamillo said that while there are “many issues that voters want the state to address,” Newsom, who is up for re-election, easily defeated a recall vote last fall and won’t. faces no serious challenges from his party.

“He’s kind of in a good position,” DiCamillo said, “even though the state has a lot of problems.”

Jose P. Rogers