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Team in favor of California high-speed rail wins annual SVES debate

June 29, 2019
Precourt Institute

By Mark Golden

California should continue to build its high-speed rail system despite soaring costs and lengthening delays, according to the audience at the annual debate of Stanford University’s Silicon Valley Energy Summit.

The debate was illuminating, competitive and very entertaining. Before the debate, 55% of the audience—in person and following live on YouTube—was  for the proposition that the state should press ahead. 25% voted against it, and 20% were undecided.

Even though more than a third of the audience changed their opinions, the final score was very close. 18% of the audience switched to “pro” from “con” or “don’t know.” 17% percent went to “con.” That made the “pro” team—chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority, Lenny Mendonca, and his predecessor in that position, Dan Richard—the winners by a nose.

However, former California State Controller Steve Westly for the “con” team landed the first rhetorical blow. The 2008 voter proposition on high-speed rail promised that the system would cost only $45 billion to build, provide cheap and fast hourly service between Los Angeles and San Francisco by 2020, and turn a profit in its first year of operation with 39 million passengers per year.

“I'd take that deal in a minute and so would most of you,” said Westly. “Not surprisingly so did the voters. Unfortunately, it's not real. None of those things happened.” (The projected cost has risen to $66 billion.)

Richard countered that transportation, which accounts for almost 50% of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, must be electrified as the next big step in the state’s fight against climate change, and that high-speed rail will be the backbone of a modern, sustainable transportation system.

“While my friend Steve Wesley might want to sit in an autonomous vehicle for seven hours from L.A. to San Francisco, I suspect most of you wouldn't,” quipped Richard.

As for cost, he added that if the high-speed rail system is not built, then the costs of the alternatives—4,300 lane miles of additional freeways, five new airport runways and 115 more gates—will exceed even the most pessimistic cost estimates of the rail system.

“I too would like a high-speed rail system that whisks me from the Bay Area to Los Angeles in less than three hours,” said Westly’s partner on the “con” team, University of Southern California adjunct faculty member Dan Schnur. “I would also like to start as center for the Golden State Warriors next season, but neither one of those things is going to happen.”

Instead, said Schnur, the reality of what Richard and Mendonca were talking about is a train from Bakersfield to Merced—the only part of the system under construction—because “that’s all Gov. Newsom has signed off on.” Further, he argued that public dollars spent on local public transportation would do more to improve people’s lives and protect the climate than high-speed rail between cities.

Richard retorted that the first line of the BART commuter system was Concord to Pleasant Hill, because every new rail system must start by building one section and that section is often the easiest one.

Mendonca’s closing remarks, though, may have sealed the win for the “pro” team.

“How many of you,” he asked the audience, “have taken high-speed rail in Japan, in China, in Spain or in France?”

Group shot of the moderator and four contestants after the debate
All smiles after the debate. From left, the "pro" team of Lenny Mendonca and Dan Richard, moderator Jeff Byron,
and “con” team of Steve Westly and Dan Schnur (Credit: Saul Bromberger)

After many had raised their hands, Mendonca concluded, “That's great. I'm delighted. Now, why can't we have that in California?”

Moderator Jeff Byron led the audience in expressing appreciation for the debaters’ expertise and humor. “And we’re still all friends, right?” he asked after the final scores were revealed.

The annual conference was held June 21. For more information, visit sves.stanford.edu.

Mendonca is also chief economic advisor to Gov. Newsom and director of the governor’s Office of Business & Economic Development. Steve Westly is founder of The Westly Group, a sustainability venture investment firm.