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Majority of Californians rethink support for high-speed rail project

Wu_Suzanneby Suzanne Wu
High-speed rail
The proposed 520-mile train will go through the Central Valley, connecting the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles.

Just weeks before the California legislature must decide the fate of the nation’s first high-speed rail project, a majority of Californians said the state has bigger priorities right now and they would veto the rail project if given another chance to vote on it, according to the results of the latest USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times Poll.

In 2008, California voters approved a ballot proposition to borrow $9 billion to help fund a high-speed rail line, which is supported by Gov. Jerry Brown and President Barack Obama.

In the latest poll, conducted May 17-21, 59 percent of voters said they would oppose the plan if given another chance to vote on it, while 33 percent said they would support funding high-speed rail.

“California voters have clearly reconsidered their support for high-speed rail,” said Dan Schnur, director of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. “They want the chance to vote again — and they want to vote no. The growing budget deficit is making Californians hesitant about spending so much money on a project like this one when they’re seeing cuts to public education and law enforcement. But they also seem to be wary as to whether state government can run a big speed rail system effectively.”

As proposed, the 520-mile train will go through the Central Valley, eventually connecting the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles. The fastest trip between the two largest cities in the state would take 2 hours and 40 minutes, and cost about $120 one way.

Overall, 55 percent of California voters said they want another chance to weigh in on whether the state should borrow money for high-speed rail, agreeing with the statement that “the plan for the project has changed, the total costs have increased and there are doubts that high-speed rail can actually turn a profit.”

In contrast, 36 percent of voters said they should not be asked to go back to the ballot box, agreeing with the statement that “a new vote could halt any planned construction, and even though the plan has changed, the intent is the same, voters have already committed funding and the project will finish earlier than projected.”

By region, residents of the San Francisco Bay Area were the most likely to support high-speed rail. In the Bay Area, 47 percent of voters said they would vote to fund high-speed rail, and 45 percent said they would oppose it. In LA County, 37 percent of voters support high-speed rail, and 56 percent oppose it. In the Central Valley, 21 percent of voters support high-speed rail, and 66 percent oppose it.

A majority of voters — 52 percent — said they had not traveled between Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area in the last year. Six percent have made the trip in the last year by plane, and 28 percent have driven by car.

About one in three Californians said high-speed rail would be their preferred mode of transportation between the Bay Area and Southern California: 33 percent of Californians said they would prefer to take high-speed rail if they needed to make the trip, compared to 31 percent who would prefer to drive and 29 percent who would prefer to fly.

“Californians aren’t necessarily against the idea of high-speed rail. But they don’t want to spend all that money right now, and they don’t trust the state to make the trains run on time,” Schnur said.

Just one percent of voters said they would use the high-speed rail line between Southern California and the Bay Area to travel once a week. Four percent said they would use it monthly; 24 percent said they would use it several times a year; and 69 percent of Californians said they would use the high-speed rail line rarely or never.

Of Californians who said they would support high-speed rail if put to another vote, 59 percent said they would use the train at least several times a year, and 40 percent of rail supporters said they would never or rarely use the train. In contrast, 11 percent of opponents of funding high-speed rail said they would use the train at least several times a year, and 88 percent said they would never or rarely use it.

Overall, 68 percent of California voters who said they would ride the train several times a year support high-speed rail, and 21 percent oppose it. Of those who said they would never take high-speed rail, 11 percent support the project, and 82 percent oppose it.

The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll was conducted by Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and Republican polling firm American Viewpoint. The full sample of 1,002 registered voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Schnur will be guest-tweeting from the Twitter account @uscelection2012 about the results of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll and election news.

Follow all election news coverage at Election 2012, a resource for journalists and others interested in politics created by USC Media Relations.

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