By George Skelton, June 22, 2014
Sen. Kevin de León, the incoming Senate leader, wants Gov. Jerry Brown
to rethink where construction should start on California's bullet train.
Gov. Jerry Brown must be saved from himself, says the next state
Senate leader. He needs to be talked out of starting the bullet train in
the Central Valley boonies.
"I don't think it makes sense to lay
down track in the middle of nowhere," asserts Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los
Angeles). "It's illogical. No one lives out there in the tumbleweeds."
León, who will become the Senate leader in October, says he supports
the concept of high-speed rail, but with the caveat that track-laying
begin in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas.
Most Californians would probably agree. But good luck with that.
various reasons, the state chose to lay the first track of the Los
Angeles-to-San Francisco rail line along a 130-mile stretch between
Bakersfield and Madera.
rationales were that the land was relatively cheap there and the flat
straightaway would offer a good test for high-speed trains. But more
important was that Washington insisted on it as a condition of the train
project landing $3.3 billion in federal stimulus money. Those fed bucks
must be spent in the Central Valley.
Why? Several anonymous
sources have pointed to politics. U.S. Rep. Jim Costa, a longtime
bullet-train advocate, voted for Obamacare after being assured that rail
construction would begin in his Fresno district. The Democrat denies
But does that mean the federal mandate couldn't be
changed — especially with new House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy
(R-Bakersfield) being a sworn enemy of high-speed rail, particularly if
it splits farms in his district? It might be worth a try, if Brown
weren't so wedded to Madera.
"If we do high-speed rail," De León says, "the governor has to be
intelligent and invest the dollars at the 'bookends' — San Francisco and
How do you make that happen? "We're going to have
to persuade the governor," De León answers. "We're going to have to save
the governor from himself on high-speed rail."
De León says he
intends to start soon by amending a bill passed with the state budget.
That bill allocated $250 million in cap-and-trade greenhouse emission
fees to the $68-billion train project. In future years, high-speed rail
will receive 25% of cap-and-trade money, amounting to several hundred
million dollars annually.
De León's amendments will prioritize reduction of greenhouse gas
emissions and air pollution in urban areas. A prime example of a worthy
project, he says, is at L.A.'s Union Station. The plan is to add
substantial track capacity and move commuter and intercity trains
through the terminal faster, reducing the long idling that fouls the
The project price tag is $350 million. The state already has
committed $175 million, but an additional $158 million is needed. De
León wants it to come from cap and trade. It's the kind of project these
fees are supposed to pay for.
infrastructure at Union Station is antiquated," the senator says.
"High-speed is going to come in eventually. We need to upgrade that
system. Every day the Metro comes in, the Amtrak comes in and they idle
their engines for hours, spewing poisonous toxins — all that crap — into
the air. That increases asthma rates, particularly of poor children who
live in the community. That's in my district, OK?
"The point I
want to make is this: How do we invest the dollars wisely and
intelligently? They should be invested in the 'bookends' in anticipation
of high-speed rail."
At the same time, he continues, "we're
putting hard hats to work. When people see the healthful impact this is
having and all the hard hats constructing, their minds may change about
high-speed rail. But out in the Central Valley, where the train's not
going anywhere, no one will see the construction jobs."
apparently another point: Just because De León and Brown are Democrats
doesn't mean that the next Senate leader will be timid about expressing
his views when they differ from the governor's. Whether he'll
aggressively act on those views, however, we'll learn after he assumes
the powerful office.
De León is also not sold on another signature
Brown project: Digging two 35-mile-long, 40-foot-wide water tunnels
under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
The tunnels would
drain fresh Sacramento River water on the delta's north end and funnel
it into aqueducts headed south into the San Joaquin Valley and Southern
California. The $26-billion project, which includes some delta
restoration, would be paid for with higher water rates and
"I'm not quite sure if investing tens
of billions of dollars in two tunnels is going to be the panacea for our
water woes, particularly in Southern California," De León says. "I
haven't come to a real conclusion, but we've got to be conserving water
De León, 47, will be California's first Latino Senate leader in 129 years.
was raised by an immigrant San Diego house cleaner with a third-grade
education. "From her I learned the value of hard work," the lawmaker
says. "She was a woman with grace and dignity who held her head up high.
I didn't want to embarrass her by getting into trouble, getting mixed
up with gangs.
"But one thing I want to make clear: As highly an
improbable pathway that my journey has been from where I came from to
where I am, yada, yada, yada, my story is not unique. It's the story of
millions of kids out there, from East L.A. to San Jose to Oakland."
De León is bound to inspire some. Perhaps he'll also inspire fellow Democrats to occasionally stand up to the governor.