SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Gov. Jerry Brown got a firsthand look on Thursday at the world's most extensive high-speed rail system and praised the initiative that created the Chinese railway, saying he was anxious to start building similarly ambitious projects in California.
During a five-hour ride covering more than 800 miles, the governor also touted the possibility of Chinese investment in the $68 billion high-speed rail project he is pushing in California.
Covering the cost of the unpopular rail system is one of the project's biggest unknowns.
The Democratic governor walked the aisles during the trip between Beijing and Shanghai, shaking hands with Chinese passengers and marveling at how much the country has developed since his only other visit to China in 1986.
"We sit around and mope. And process. And navel gaze," Brown said, according to KXTV-ABC in Sacramento, which sent a reporter on the trade mission. "And the rest of the world is moving at Mach speed. So when we go back, we'll emulate some of that."
Brown was joined by Dan Richard, head of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, and representatives of Tangshan Railway Vehicle Co., a Chinese company that designed and built that country's bullet train system.
He also brought his own reading material for the trip — a copy of the Chinese government's five-year plan. He remarked that he enjoyed the ride, according to the Los Angeles Times reporter traveling with the governor.
"I like it because I can read and it's easy to get on," Brown said.
Brown is a champion of the bullet train plan for California, which was approved by voters in 2008 but has been losing favor as its costs have soared. It is one of the most expensive public works projects in the U.S.
He has said the project is crucial for the state's future, in large part to relieve pressure off the state's freeway system. During his time aboard the Chinese train, he said he was anxious to get large infrastructure projects off the ground in California. That would include his $24 billion plan to build two massive water tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and restore the region's habitat.
"When I get back, it's just going to be one building after another," Brown told KXTV.
Yet critics and questions abound on both of those massive projects.
A study released Thursday by the libertarian Reason Foundation said California rail officials were overestimating ridership on the high-speed rail line by as much as 77 percent, which would mean far less revenue once the bullet train begins operating. That contradicts a report given to members of Congress last month by the Government Accountability Office, which said the rail authority's ridership and revenue forecasts are reasonable.
The GAO could not assess whether the authority's projected costs are feasible but said the California agency is following most of the government's best practices in making its predictions. The report noted that a funding gap of $39 billion is unlikely to be filled by the federal government given the current political climate in Washington, D.C.
Given the funding questions, it's no surprise Brown also is looking to the Chinese for investment help.
The Sacramento Bee reported Thursday that California rail officials traveling with the governor met privately this week with potential Chinese investors, including the Chinese Investment Corp., a major sovereign wealth fund.
Despite the governor's praise for the Chinese approach, it's difficult to compare it to a major infrastructure project in the U.S.
The Chinese high-speed rail network benefits from heavy government financing and faces few of the environmental and legal hurdles found in California. The land needed to build the Chinese system, which stretches 5,800 miles, is often forcibly procured at below market prices.
China's high-speed rail system also has faced problems: Part of a line collapsed in central China after heavy rains, and a crash in 2011 killed 40 people. The former railway minister, who spearheaded the bullet train's construction, and the ministry's chief engineer, were detained in a corruption investigation.
Earlier this week, prosecutors submitted a lawsuit against Liu Zhijun for taking bribes and abusing his power, two years after he was ousted from his job as railways minister.
Brown met with China Premier Li Keqiang before leaving Beijing and pulled into Shanghai on Thursday night.
He will resume a full itinerary Friday as he nears the midway point of his seven-day trade visit. The main event is the opening of California's trade office and attending events promoting state agriculture and tourism.
Associated Press writer Judy Lin in Sacramento, Calif., contributed to this report.