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Support for California high-speed rail unchanged after 10 years

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Despite delays and billions of dollars in overruns, poll says same percentage of Californians approve of project

State Environmental Laws Threaten To Slow CA High Speed Rail Project Photo by California High-Speed Rail Authority via Getty Images

California’s high-speed rail project is facing years of delays and tens of billions of dollars in cost overruns, with the worst case scenarios approaching $100 billion.

But despite this circus of terrible news, support for the project remains virtually unchanged since voters approved it ten years ago, according to a poll released last week by the non-profit research group the Public Policy Institute of California.

PPIC talked to 1,706 Californians during the first week of March to quiz them on a variety of election-year issues, including the high-speed rail.

In part, here’s what they found:

  • Some 72 percent of Bay Area respondents called rail construction at least “somewhat important,” and 70 percent in the Los Angeles area responded similarly. The only region where the project does not enjoy majority support is the Central Valley, which is evenly split between those who said at least “somewhat important” and more skeptical responses.
  • Statewide, 35 percent of people rank high-speed rail as “very important.” That’s down only one point from the all-time high of 36 percent in past PPIC polls. Among “likely voters,” it’s 32 percent.
  • When asked about the price, 72 percent of those polled said they would be in favor of the project if it cost less. Oddly, this is exactly equivalent to the number of responses that are supportive anyway—again, those who call high-speed rail at least “somewhat important”—suggesting that most of the opposition is from die-hard skeptics who said no from day one, at least in this particular poll.
  • Finally, the most important finding: When told about the cost (estimated at $70 billion in the survey, although current most likely estimates are several billion higher), 53 percent said they are still in favor of the project, up from 48 percent last year.

The reason that 53 percent figure is so critical—other than that it means a majority of Californians polled still back the project despite its woes—is that it’s so close to the 52.7 percent of California voters who voted in favor of high-speed rail in 2008.

Of course, the PPIC also found support for high-speed rail lower among “likely voters” than the general population; in truth it’s not quite fair to compare past voters to current potential ones in one-to-one terms. And it’s never wise to make too much of just a single poll, as even a properly conducted poll will never fully represent the electorate.

Still, that so many people can see the price of the whole shebang nearly doubled in a decade and still give their nod of approval must be disheartening for longtime opponents of the project.