Jeff Morales Steps Down: CA High Speed Rail Leader Discusses Progress & Future


Jeff Morales has been CEO of the California High Speed Rail Authority since 2012, helping to champion a transformative project priority  of Gov. Jerry Brown that has survived near-constant scrutiny from lawmakers. Morales, who previously directed a Caltrans district, has also worked to craft bipartisan and collaborative solutions to other regional transportation issues, including the electrification of the Caltrain corridor in the San Francisco peninsula. VX News is pleased to present Morales’ exit interview as he steps down from the High Speed Rail Authority. 

Jeff, as you close out five years of overseeing the California High Speed Rail Authority, offer our readers some perspective on the progress that has been made in the last half-decade and where the project stands today.

Jeff Morales: Progress is the key word. I’m proud of what the team and I were able to do in five years. We took the program from a concept without any clear implementation plan, to having 120 miles under construction, environmental clearances underway, and key pieces of the funding in place. The bottom line is: This thing is happening. I’m proud and excited to have been part of that.

Over the past five years, there has been great uncertainty about transportation funding not only at the national level, but also from the state of California, even though there has been an extension of cap and trade. How has CA HSRA been navigating that uncertainty?

One thing that has been both challenging and exciting, but also at times frustrating, about this program is that we’re operating in uncharted waters in almost every regard. Five years ago, the mandate the organization and I were given was: Let’s start building the country’s biggest infrastructure project—with virtually no staff, very uncertain funding, no policies or procedures, and no contracts in place. In spite of the odds and the obstacles, we were able to actually get that going.

We stabilized and secured the federal funding that was made available, and contrary to what a lot of people thought, we have fully expended all of the stimulus money that was provided—$2.5 billion—and are utilizing the other federal funds that came under the Obama administration. After legal battles, we’ve been able to access the first Prop 1A bond funds, as well as cap and trade proceeds.

The commitment of cap and trade proceeds was key to moving the program forward, because it provided an ongoing source of funding beyond the Prop 1A money. The Authority does not have any ability to generate funding itself and can only utilize money that is appropriated by the Legislature or Congress. For us, getting this extension, and having that ongoing source locked in, is critical.

If Kevin Starr, the chronicler of California history were still with us, he would probably be revisiting his writing on California’s century old inclination to think big and act without certainty to do great things. What have you learned from taking that approach at CHRA?

I absolutely want to reinforce that point, and I have to say that, as a state, we could not be more fortunate than to have Jerry Brown as governor. A project like this is one that most others probably would have walked away from—it’s just too big, too complicated, and too controversial. But he sees the long-term value in it. So has the Legislature; key people like Darrell Steinberg, Kevin de León, and Anthony Rendon have seen the vision of what California can do, and have stuck with it.

Over the course of this job, any time I was traveling or interacting with people from around the country, there was a sense of envy and awe about what California can do as a state. Nobody else can step up and do things the way California can, and this project is a great example of that spirit.

Elaborate on the decisions made in determining where to start construction, the route, and how to fund High Speed Rail in California have impacted the way this project will take shape over the next decade. 

I think people don’t fully appreciate the complexity of the different sets of restrictions and requirements that we’ve had to work with. We couldn’t just go out and start building the system in increments that otherwise would be preferred; Prop 1A has all sorts of very specific requirements that affected some of those decisions. Some critics either didn’t know about those requirements or ignored them – something we can’t do.

There were also practical issues. You can’t start running high-speed trains in California, or anywhere in the US, without testing them first and getting the necessary certifications from the federal government. And for that, you need a test track, and you need it where you’re running the trains fastest. We had to start building in the Central Valley, because that’s where we had to put the test track that will then be the spine of the system.

Some people in the Legislature and elsewhere questioned why we weren’t building the bookends first.  Through the electrification of the Caltrain corridor on the Peninsula and through targeted early investments in Southern California, we are advancing the bookends.  But, the prescriptive provisions of Prop 1A and the need to test and certify forced the major investments in the Central Valley.  If we had all the money in the world, maybe we could have done everything simultaneously. But we had to make decisions and trade-offs, and work within the constraints. People are watching to make sure we’re following the letter of the law, and challenging us if they think we’re not.

This is not your first exit interview with MIR; we spoke in 2004, as you were leaving Caltrans. At that time, coming off of 9/11, there was a much more of a communitarian spirit in the country. Today in Washington, there seems to be a pervasive belief that infrastructure in public works ought to be about market return, with little respect for communitarian values. Do you assess it that way? What is the significance of such a change in political values for your work?

Early in my career, prior to coming to California, I worked in Washington—back when it was functional, or at least more functional. Things got done. Infrastructure and transportation, in particular, were non-partisan issues. They could be fiercely parochial, but they were non-partisan. 

Today, just about everything is partisan and progress is hard to come by. But the idea that somehow the federal government doesn’t have a role in infrastructure flies in the face of history.

There’s no question that there can be a role for the private sector, but these things are called “public works” for a reason. The public has to lead. Throughout the history of the country and of this state, big, bold public investments are what have created economic opportunities and other advances.

The understanding of the value of public, especially federal, investment in infrastructure, doesn’t seem to be there right now.  I think at some point, that’s going to turn around, but for the time being, it’s not a good situation.

In the Central Valley, the High Speed Rail project benefited from working across the political aisle—with a Democratic governor on one hand, and at least a few Republicans like Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, aligned. Is that replicable going forward?

I think it is. The Central Valley, and Fresno in particular, is a great example.  In the long run, the connectivity that cities like Fresno, Bakersfield, Merced, Gilroy and Palmdale will gain will have dramatic positive impacts.  In the nearer term, as the program moves through construction, communities will see the benefits of the initial investments.    

You see that with what’s happening economically in and around Fresno. We’ve invested well over $2 billion into the state’s economy, and that stimulated over $4 billion of economic activity.  It’s showing real impacts around Fresno. Community leaders point to it, and we’re seeing it statistically. Unemployment is down, for example.  Studies show that it’s now below 10% for only the fourth time in the last few decades, and point to the investment in high-speed rail as a key factor.

Dozens of local small businesses are working on the program, creating local benefits.  People who were on public support are getting jobs, improving their lives and contributing to the economy.  Over 1200 construction trades workers have been put to work, and that number will continue to grow. The indirect effects of investment are real, with local businesses, from restaurants to dry cleaners to office suppliers seeing the benefits. 

Fresno’s new Republican mayor, Lee Brand, came into office as a self-professed skeptic of high-speed rail, and now talks publicly about being a convert because he has seen the value of the investment to a city like Fresno. It’s a big part of the city’s future.

I am optimistic that as people see results, and see things actually happening, it will change their perspective, and they’ll see that this is worth it after all, and we need to do more of this sort of thing – investing in our communities and in our future.

The annual Rail-Volution Conference is taking place in Denver this fall. One of its founders, Congressmember Earl Blumenauer, has been an evangelist for the role of local and intercity transportation for decades. Talk about the tension between investing in intercity and intra-city transportation, and the payoffs from either or both.

When I joined the governor, the board, and CalSTA Secretary Brian Kelly in working on this project, we made a big change in the way we looked at it that I’m very proud of: We moved away from thinking of it as a standalone system meant to connect San Francisco to LA, and shifted our focus to integrating it with local transportation. We began to work much more closely with local partners. 

We’ve invested in local projects in LA. We’re investing in the Caltrain electrification on the Peninsula. We’ve done planning with all the cities that will have high-speed rail stations, looking at how to tie in local mobility and transit services. 

The transportation funding package that just passed through the Legislature reflects that approach. It doesn’t invest in high-speed rail, but it invests in the connecting systems. The reality is that you always have to balance needs and that the pie never seems to be big enough for everybody to get the piece they want.  But, we’ve taken real steps to make sure that we’re sharing the pie and the system as a whole works together.

Negative campaigning appears to have become the rule of the politics, especially after the 2016 national election. You’ve dealt with your fair share of negative campaigning against the high-speed rail. What have you learned about how best to respond?

The single biggest challenge of this program is its scale, and the amount of time it’s going to take to get done because of that scale. People just don’t think in 10-year horizons; they want to see immediate results. So a big program like this is also, in some respects, a constant campaign.

We have to make sure that we’re not taking past support for granted, or think that since something passed a few years ago, we don’t need to stay engaged with the public anymore. We need to keep educating people as to the benefits, why this matters, and what they’re going to get. We need to ensure that the positive side is always getting out.  As has always been the case, the easy thing is making arguments against a big, long-term investment.  But, the end results show that it was worth it. 

Lay out the elevator pitch of your campaign for our readers.

It’s not really about the train. It’s about what the train will do. And what this system is going to do is connect the state in a way it never has been before.  It will tie the north to the south, and, very importantly, it will tie the Central Valley to both the Bay and the LA area. That’s going to create tremendous opportunities up and down the state, the same way we see the benefits connecting the cities of the Northeast Corridor. We’re going to see great efficiencies in the economy, and environmental benefits, as well. A key element of this is that it’s the beginning of clean transportation as a centerpiece of California’s transportation network.

Some years from now, when the high-speed rail is built out, what is CAHSR’s impact on California?

We’ll see communities like Fresno in the Central Valley tied together with Silicon Valley in a way it never has been before. We’ll see people with an opportunity to work at jobs they never could have had before. Trips to LA, Anaheim, San Francisco and San Jose will be more efficient, productive and reliable.  We’ll see business benefitting from the efficiency of being able to have satellite offices and more dispersed operations. And we’ll see, as part of this, a much stronger push toward more sustainable cities, with higher densities and more vibrant downtowns rising up around stations, and all the economic activity happening around them.

No one knows better than you how complex California’s transportation governance system is: a web of agencies, departments, and commissions at the local, regional, and state level, all interconnected with federal funding. Did you leave a note in your desk for your successor about how to navigate that?

I hope I’ve left behind some of my successes, and that people will also learn just as much from what I didn’t do as well. It’s a tricky thing to get through all of those layers. Probably the most important thing is to do your best to work with all those parties as partners.  I’m sure that whoever takes my place will work with the governor and the secretary and the board to make sure it happens. One person can’t do all of that; it’s a team effort.

“There’s no question that there can be a role for the private sector, but these things are called ‘public works’ for a reason. The public has to lead.” —Jeff Morales