California’s ambitious high-speed rail line at a crossroads

FRESNO, California – On an average day, 1,000 workers make their way to dozens of construction sites spread over 120 miles in California’s vast Central Valley.

Your task is monumental: build the bridges and crossings designed to carry high-speed trains that form the backbone of a $105 billion, 500-mile high-speed rail system whose scale has drawn comparisons to the construction of the interstate freeway system.

14 years after voters approved a nearly $10 billion bond to begin construction of the rail system that would take riders from Los Angeles to San Francisco at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour, many have California residents have long lost track of what is being built, where and when, or if it will ever be completed.

But if, as President Biden said in his State of the Union address, the nation is now entering an “infrastructure decade,” there is no more dramatic proving ground — or more cautionary tale — than California’s high-speed rail plan.

When the bond measure was passed in 2008, the project symbolized the state’s ambition to build and think big. But in the years since, the project has become something else: an alarming vision of a nation seemingly unable to complete the transformative projects needed to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The planned route and scope of the rail has changed due to cost increases, political squabbles and legal challenges.

“We have just one fundamental problem with building large projects in the United States,” said Yonah Freemark, an Urban Institute researcher who has been following the railroad plan for more than a decade. “And the California high-speed line is the largest of the projects.”

The arguments for and against the use have never been so different.

But a staggering price tag and fundamental political support issues create a critical juncture to either achieving the project’s full vision or leaving it in expensive limbo.

“The costs of indecisiveness on these projects are enormous,” said Eric Eidlin, a Mineta Transportation Institute scholar at San Jose State University who has advised the California High-Speed ​​Rail Authority on station planning.

Proponents say the project has always been much more than a train. When completed, they say, the system would be an economic supercharger connecting two of the country’s largest population centers and a much-needed alternative to congested freeways and congested airports as climate change becomes an increasingly urgent challenge.

“We’re the fifth largest economy in the world, so I think we need to figure out how to do that,” said Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who, as governor, championed the 2008 bond measure. “Failure is not an option here.”

Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor at Oxford University and the IT University of Copenhagen who has studied high-speed rail projects around the world, said such projects almost always cost much more and take much longer than initially planned.

The difference between high-speed rail projects that have stalled for decades and those that start running trains isn’t money, he said. It’s political power.

“The money will be found when the political will is there,” he said.

But political will in California has waned as leaders’ patience has waned. The most significant turning point was Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement three years ago in his first State of California address that California would operate a shortened section of the line that would run from Bakersfield to Merced in the state’s mostly rural Central Valley.

That stunned supporters and stoked critics, who believed he was publicly announcing the demise of the entire project, although Mr Newsom later said the change in priority should not prevent the full route from being completed.

Some state lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, are now saying the effort has become flawed and unwieldy, perhaps beyond salvage. Critics say rail officials are looking for a blank check from the state coffers and that their timeline for completion inexplicably stretches into the future.

“The project is in distress by any objective measure,” said Anthony Rendon, speaker of the California Assembly, a Democrat. “Connecting the state’s two largest metropolitan areas is the best thing we can do from an environmental and economic standpoint. Connecting two cities in the Central Valley would derail the project.”

Instead of dedicating $4.2 billion in bond money in this year’s budget to, as Mr. Newsom put it, “to finish the work in the Central Valley,” Mr. Rendon said he had asked the governor to back off To receive funds from the project and to spend more on improving existing transportation systems, particularly in the Los Angeles area, which includes his district.

“We’re focused on building ridership for a potential high-speed rail project, and you do that by working on the bookends,” he said.

In a recent interview, Mr. Newsom said his decision to prioritize the Central Valley segment was based on a calculation that the prospects for the entire project would be best when part of it was operational.

“The linchpin was never giving up on the vision,” he said. “The long-term is still there.”

He added that this year’s budget proposal includes money to continue environmental and design work for the expansions beyond the Central Valley. “But it requires federal funding — not exclusively, but primarily,” he said.

A report from the California the Office of the Legislative Analyst notes that while lawmakers could decide to extend funding for the project — including some of the cap-and-trade revenue through 2030 — it’s unclear where the money will come from to move beyond the Central Valley segment to build.

Experts say the fragmentation of transportation planning in the country has made the federal government reluctant to invest heavily in new projects rather than repairing existing systems. That’s being superimposed on a national political environment where the emergence of California buoyancy moves can be a burden even for Democrats like the president.

California high-speed rail “will receive federal funding now that there is a Democratic administration and the infrastructure bill is ready,” said Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan research organization. “But the federal government is not tasked with creating massive infrastructure programs that disproportionately benefit a state.”

Mr. Davis estimated that of the $36 billion “mother money” in the infrastructure bill for states with long-distance trains, more than half will go to the Northeast, with what’s left to be split between projects in other states. He said if the California project also competes for funding from smaller pots in the law, like one for railroad safety, California could get $4 or $5 billion — “maybe.”

Still, proponents say the idea of ​​scraping together up to $105 billion should be stacked against the cost of expanding highways and air services by an equal amount. The rail authority recently put that figure at nearly $200 billion, not including the escalating costs of dealing with climate change, like fighting wildfires.

In states like Texas and Florida, private companies have tried to capitalize on the need for faster, greener rail systems in the United States.

But nothing comes close to the scale of California’s plan. Longtime supporters like former Gov. Jerry Brown call high-speed rail the best climate-friendly transportation option by far. They point with frustration and embarrassment to successes in countries around the world – particularly in China, which has built more than 20,000 miles of high-speed rail in about two decades.

For Brian P. Kelly, who took over as chief executive of the rail authority in early 2018, the only way to see the project through is to move forward regardless of the political weather.

He rattled off his assignments as if describing a day of errands: getting trains running on the 170-mile stretch of the Central Valley. (Mr. Kelly said he expects this to happen by the end of the decade.) Continue preparations for the expansions and complete improvements at both ends of the line. Then find the money to build the rest.

Meanwhile, the Central Valley – the implied “nowhere” when critics scoff at the project as “train to nowhere” – changes quickly. The most important economic sectors in the region, such as agriculture, are facing a generational change. And families from coastal cities arrive in search of relatively affordable housing, driving up costs and displacing poorer residents as part of an increasingly familiar cycle.

The train would always have to go through the Central Valley. While some local leaders have been vocal against the project over the years, many believe the region should take advantage of the opportunities the train could offer.

“We’re on the brink,” said Ashley Swearengin, a former Fresno mayor who now heads the Central Valley Community Foundation. “We could do it right.”

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