California's high-speed rail matters

California Governor Jerry Brown (C) and his wife, Anne Gust, prepare to sign a railroad rail during a ceremony for the California High Speed Rail in Fresno, Calif., on Jan. 6, 2015. (Photo by Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
California Governor Jerry Brown (C) and his wife, Anne Gust, prepare to sign a railroad rail during a ceremony for the California High Speed Rail in Fresno, Calif., on Jan. 6, 2015.
It wasn't long after President Obama first took office that he began pushing his vision for high-speed rail in the United States. White House officials noted the success of such infrastructure investments through Asia-Pacific and Europe, and with the American economy in desperate need of an economic boost, Obama saw "HSR" as a no-brainer.
Republicans disagreed. When the federal government allocated over $2 billion for a high-speed rail project linking Tampa and Orlando, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) announced he would refuse to accept the funds. When Washington directed $810 million for a railway linking Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) not only rejected the economic development, he made it a centerpiece of his 2010 campaign.
The more GOP candidates won at the state and federal level, the more high-speed rail languished as an initiative for other countries. Even as countries like China saw huge economic benefits, Republicans in the U.S. declared, in no uncertain terms, "We're not interested."
It made this week's news in California that much more heartening.

On a vacant lot in a depressed industrial area of Fresno, Gov. Jerry Brown and other California leaders on Tuesday marked the beginning of construction of the nation's first bullet train and one of its most ambitious public works projects ever. Conceived in Brown's first terms as governor a generation ago, the $68-billion line that is supposed to connect the state's major population centers has finally reached a stage where heavy construction equipment and thousands of workers are ready to begin raising bridges, building underpasses and preparing miles of track bed.

As many Californians will eagerly tell you, the project has had its share of political, legal, and engineering challenges. For that matter, it will still be a long while before high-speed trains welcome passengers.
But the Democratic governor, backed with federal funds, sees it as an investment worth making -- and he's very likely correct.
The estimable David Dayen had a good piece on this yesterday, describing the launch of HSR in California as "miraculous."

The bullet train won't begin serving Californians until the next decade, and only if the remaining funds needed for completion can be located. But it's kind of a miracle that shovels ever hit the ground at all. The estimated $68 billion project defeated legal challenges, conservative grousers and even a short-sighted attack by the environmental lobby to make it this far. And if it succeeds, a nation with few recent, tangible examples of what government can actually do to improve people's lives will finally have a cutting-edge piece of infrastructure to point to. [...] [B]uilding out high-speed rail has implications for more than California. Americans have effectively given up on a visionary politics, as the 2014 midterms exemplified. The country turned its back on activist government, mainly because they so rarely see anything come from it that they can touch and feel. They resist paying taxes because they can't identify what they get in return. Infrastructure projects can provide powerful symbols of that return on investment, and show that only effective government can create such lasting monuments to progress.

I couldn't agree more. Watching Brown's groundbreaking ceremony, I kept thinking about the debate over whether Americans are still capable of "doing big things." Well, high-speed rail is a big thing and in the nation's largest state, it's finally on track (so to speak).
Nearly two years ago, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), a fierce critic of nearly all public investment, delivered an unexpected speech in which he said he'd like to see the United States become "a nation of builders" again. "America's greatness has always rested on our ability to build and produce things," the Republican leader said, specifically pointing to the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the federal highway system.
The fact remains that we can be this kind of country again if we're willing to make the kinds of investments Obama and Brown support, and Boehner opposes.