Which side of the California high-speed-rail debate are you on? The answer could help determine the state's next governor and, in turn, the fate of a project that has divided the Bay Area.
Meg Whitman, the Republican gubernatorial candidate and former eBay CEO, said through a spokeswoman Friday that she "believes the state cannot afford the costs associated with high-speed rail due to our current fiscal crisis." She lives in the wealthy Peninsula town of Atherton, which is ground zero for the anti-bullet-train movement because of concerns about the tracks that would run through the community.
Jerry Brown, the Democratic nominee and state attorney general, started the push for high-speed rail in 1982 as governor and thinks the current plan is a "bold" one that "we should find a way to make work," his spokesman said Friday. Brown lives in Oakland, which is not near the proposed train route.
The $43 billion San Francisco-to-Los Angeles project — planned to run along Caltrain tracks in the Bay Area — is due to start construction in 2012. Key decisions on the rail-line plan will be made in 2011, after the new governor takes office in January and Arnold Schwarzenegger — a recent high-speed-rail supporter because of the federal stimulus dollars it garnered — is termed out.
The governor must approve the California High-Speed Rail Authority's annual spending plan and appoint five of its nine board members. The board still has to decide which company will make the trains, whether the route will be above or below ground, and how the state will pay for it.
The candidates' stances on high-speed rail could help shape the election and the choice of governor could affect how, when and if the project is built.
Experts said the high-speed-rail issue could be drowned out by the state's budget mess and education and unemployment woes, but the candidates' opinions on high-speed rail could be seen as a microcosm for the disparity between the two.
And for those who live in cities where the tracks will be, or for those hungry for jobs, the difference of opinion should win votes for one candidate or the other, political consultants said.
But, along party lines, Brown is still the favorite in the Peninsula and South Bay, where high-speed-rail concerns have been loudest.
Of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties' 1.1 million voters, Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1; there are more independents than Republicans. The region does, however, have nearly 284,000 decline-to-state voters.
How they vote could be key, since polls indicate the two candidates are neck and neck.
"For the voter that looks at both candidates and fails to discern much of a difference between them, this could be a tiebreaker," said Larry Gerston, a San Jose State political science professor. "It will also stand out as a symbolic issue."
Gerston said Whitman could be seen as supporting the will of the Peninsula people and governments opposed to the idea while trying to control spending, while voters could view Brown as pushing for jobs and new transportation options while protecting the environment.
Former GOP strategist Bill Whalen, a Hoover research fellow who lives in Palo Alto, said the difference shows Whitman's plans are more concrete while Brown is "fuzzy and vague." Some Californians have questioned how the rail authority could find the remaining three-fourths of funding needed to bankroll the project and they still think it is a "pie in the sky" idea.
"In this case, she's being pragmatic and he's being more utopian," Whalen said. "This is part of a larger trend in the election."
Robert Cruikshank, Californians for High-Speed Rail chairman, noted that former Palo Alto Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, the most vocal bullet-train critic in the southern Peninsula's 21st Assembly District race, lost to two candidates in the June Democratic primary who were more tempered on high-speed rail.
"If I'm Jerry Brown, I would strongly embrace high-speed rail in the Peninsula and the Bay Area. There's still reason to believe that most voters there strongly support it," Cruikshank said. "I would go up to Meg Whitman's turf in Silicon Valley and say, 'This is how we're going to get California back to work.' "
Whitman's hometown of Atherton joined Burlingame, Belmont, Palo Alto and Menlo Park this week in asking the state to halt the project until their concerns are met. The cities say the project would divide their communities as it comes down the Caltrain line on an elevated structure and want it instead underground.
Menlo Park and Atherton have also tried reopening a lawsuit to stop the project, and two more suits have come from Menlo Park property owners, including one recently thrown out of court.
Mike Rosenberg covers San Mateo, Burlingame, Belmont and transportation. Contact him at 650-348-4324.