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The farmer, governor & high speed train projects
dennis Wyatt web
Dennis Wyatt

Too bad Jerry Brown didn't try to make a living as a farmer after his first stint as governor.

If he had perhaps California would now be halfway through an epic endeavor to interlace the Los Angeles-Inland Empire region and the Bay Area-Northern San Joaquin Valley-Sacramento area with heavy and light rail instead of still trying to piece together the first segment of high speed rail aptly dubbed by its critics as the Rail to Nowhere.

After a stint as Mayor of Oakland following his first two terms of governor, Brown noted he learned to appreciate government at the level that was a part of people's everyday life which meant the driving issues were making sure the garbage was picked up, water flowed, toilets flushed, and potholes are fixed. It was a level where glamorous policy debates are a distant second to the more mundane pressing necessities of everyday life.

Brown returned to the governorship nearly seven years ago with hardly a trace of the somewhat false egotistical image he created in his first stunt as governor when he'd engage in philosophical debates lasting hours when discussing basic government issues that earned him the moniker Gov. Moonbeam.

His heavy political investment in high speed rail that has kept high speed rail afloat long after a clear majority of Californians have soured on the concept thanks in part to dubious business plans, overselling its appeal to private sector investment which has been zilch, fantasy-based construction timelines, and ever ballooning costs might not have happened had Brown followed his eight year stint as Oakland mayor with four years of making a living as a farmer instead of serving a term as California's attorney general.

That's because the no-nonsense pragmatic view of a farmer who understood stewardship of nature requirng a healthy dose of being realistic is what brought the concept of regional rail service to the car-driven culture of Northern California.

The late Bob Cabral - the Escalon almond grower who represented his home community as well as Manteca and other parts of the South County on the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors - was arguably the driving force behind the concept of rail service between Stockton and San Jose.

More than a few people thought he was off his rocker given the general consensus you could not pry Californians' collective hands off the steering wheel - especially those in the suburbs. Conventional wisdom assumed it would take a miracle to get Californian commuters even if faced with gas prices north of $5 a gallon and the heavy hand of government mandates to ride a train.

Cabral didn't see things that way.
In an interview one day while taking a break from tending an almond orchard on Austin Road he related what led him to the conclusion heavy rail across the Altamont Pass to the job rich Bay Area would work.

He saw among South County residents that he represented people who moved here so they could provide housing and a safe environment for their families. The grind of what often was a three to four hour daily roundtrip commute to employment in the Silicon Valley due to freeway congestion robbed people of family time as well as being a physical drain.

He also believed rail passenger service could be done in a cost-effective manner.

To that extent he worked realistic numbers just like he needed to do year in and year out to make his farming operations viable and steered clear of pie-in-the-sky business plans.

The Altamont Corridor Express is a success when measured against virtually all railroad commute systems.

It's fare box recovery - the amount of operating and maintenance costs paid by passengers - is at times the highest in the nation having approached 50 percent when other systems are thrilled to attain a 20 to 25 percent fare box recovery rate.

ACE works because it effectively can serve large numbers of people day in and day out by taking them from where they live to where they work.

That's the fatal flaw of the high speed rail business plan.

It's not based on a sustainable day-to-day ridership as much as it is the business or pleasure riders. That means there is no substantial foundation of riders that can be counted on as many as five times a week to ride the rails.

Riding high speed rail also will never develop into a necessary ticket to buy. They are very few people who commute daily from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Everyone has a choice. They can fly. They can drive. They can take a bus. And they can even ride heavy rail.

Contrary to the techies not everyone is hell-bent to get from Point A to Point B in the fastest time possible nor can they afford to do so.

Then there is the biggest flaw of all - assuming spending $70 billion or so on high speed rail is the most effective way of cutting pollution. Cars burn fuel cleaner at freeway speeds and become borderline gross polluters in stop and go traffic commute traffic.

Farmers - who survive due to a commitment of stewardship of their land, long-range thinking, and well-thought long range fiscal planning given they rarely get a shot at more than one pay check a year - would have opted to serve the daily masses and not the relatively elite few.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.