California’s ambitious high-speed train at a crossroads

FRESNO, Calif. — An average of 1,000 workers travel to dozens of construction sites spread over 119 miles across California’s vast Central Valley.

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

Of course, 14 years after voters approved a nearly $10 billion bond to begin building the rail system that would ferry passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco at speeds of over 200 miles per hour, many California residents have long lost track of what is to be built where, 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 a “decade of infrastructure,” there is no more spectacular testing ground – or more cautious show – than California’s high-speed rail plan.

In 2008, when the bond measure was adopted, 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 that seems incapable of carrying out the transformational projects needed to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The planned route and scope of the railroad changed due to soaring costs, political wrangling, and legal challenges.

“We just have a fundamental problem in the United States of building big projects,” said Yonah Freemark, a researcher at the Urban Institute who has tracked the rail plan for more than a decade. “And California’s high-speed rail is the biggest of the projects.”

Never have the arguments for and against the effort been so divergent.

But a sky-high price tag and fundamental questions about political support create a critical moment to realize the project’s full vision or leave it in costly limbo.

“The cost of indecision on these projects is enormous,” said Eric Eidlin, a research fellow at San Jose State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute, who has consulted on station planning efforts for California High. -Speed ​​Rail Authority.

Proponents say the project has always been more than a train. If completed, they say, the system would be an economic supercharger linking two of the country’s largest population centers and a desperately needed alternative to choked highways and gridlocked airports as climate change becomes an increasing challenge. more urgent.

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

Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor at the University of Oxford and the Computer 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. to be built than originally planned.

The difference between high-speed rail projects that limp for decades and those that start running trains is not money, he said. It is political energy.

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

But the political will in California has waned as the patience of leaders runs out. The most significant turning point was the announcement three years ago by Governor Gavin Newsom in his first State of the State address that California would begin operating a truncated section of the highway that would run from Bakersfield to Merced in the largely rural Central Valley of the state.

This stunned supporters and fueled critics who believed he was publicly announcing the end of the full project, although Mr Newsom later said the change in priority was not intended to prevent the full route from being completed.

Some state lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, now say the effort has become flawed and unwieldy, perhaps beyond saving. Critics say railroad officials are asking for a blank check from the state coffers and their timeline for completion stretches inexplicably into the future.

“The project is, by all objective measures, in distress,” said Anthony Rendon, California Assembly Speaker, a Democrat. “Connecting the two largest urban areas in the state is the best thing we can do from an environmental standpoint and from an economic development standpoint. Connecting two towns in the central valley would ruin the project.

Instead of devoting $4.2 billion in obligations in this year’s budget to, as Mr. Newsom put it, “finish the job in the Central Valley”, Mr. Rendon said he asked the governor to retain funds from the project and spend more to improve existing public transit systems, especially in the Los Angeles area, which includes its district.

“What we’re focused on is building ridership for a possible high-speed rail project, and the way you do that is working on the bookends,” he said.

In a recent interview, Mr. Newsom said his decision to prioritize the Central Valley segment was based on the calculation that the prospects for the entire project were better if part of it worked.

“The pivot was never giving up on vision,” he said. “The long term is always there.”

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

A report from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office notes that while the state legislature may decide to extend funding for the project – including a portion of cap and trade revenue through 2030 – there is no unclear where the money will come from to build beyond the Central Valley segment.

Experts say the fragmented nature of transportation planning in the country has made the federal government hesitant to bet big on new projects rather than fixing existing systems. This is superimposed on a national political environment in which the emergence of California boosterism can be a liability, even for Democrats like the president.

California’s high-speed rail “will get federal funding now that there’s a Democratic administration in place and the infrastructure bill is done,” said Jeff Davis, senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, a non-partisan research organization. “But the federal government is not in the business of creating massive infrastructure programs that disproportionately benefit one state.”

Mr Davis estimated that of a $36 billion “mother lode” in infrastructure law for states with intercity rail services, more than half will go to the northeast, leaving what remains to be split between projects in other states. He said if the California project also competes for funding smaller pots of money in the law, like the one designated for rail safety, California could get $4 or $5 billion – “maybe” .

Still, proponents say the idea of ​​raising as much as $105 billion should be stacked against the cost of expanding highways and air services by an equivalent amount. The rail authority recently put the figure at almost $200 billion, not including the rising costs of fighting climate change, such as 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 the Californian plan. Longtime proponents like former Governor Jerry Brown describe high-speed rail as by far the best climate-friendly transportation option. They point with frustration and embarrassment to successes in countries around the world, particularly China, which has built more than 20,000 miles of high-speed railroads 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 plod along, regardless of the political climate.

He recounted his upcoming duties as if describing a day of racing: running trains on the 170-mile section of the Central Valley. (Mr. Kelly said he expects that to happen by the end of the decade.) Continue preparations for extensions and trim improvements at each end of the line. Then find the money to build the rest.

Meanwhile, the Central Valley – the “nowhere” implied when critics deride the project as “a train to nowhere” – is rapidly changing. Major industries in the region, such as agriculture, are facing generational changes. And families driven from coastal towns arrive in search of relatively affordable housing, driving up costs and evicting poorer residents in an increasingly familiar cycle.

The train still had to pass through the central valley. So while some local leaders have opposed the project over the years, many believe the region should seize the opportunities the train could bring.

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

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