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California high speed rail construction
One of the most important transportation projects in U.S. history is at a crossroads.
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

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California’s high-speed rail is still on. But how can it move forward?

The train could be a turning point for U.S. infrastructure investment. Here’s how the state can get it done

Despite delivering what some interpreted as a death knell, California Governor Gavin Newsom has confirmed—and re-confirmed—that a comprehensive high-speed rail system is still happening in the state.

But one part of Newsom’s original statement wasn’t open to nuance: This high-speed rail project has serious problems.

“The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long,” Newsom said at his State of the State address. “There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.”

California’s rail campaign is a cautionary tale to be sure. A ballot measure was passed in 2008, setting up a bond measure intended to funnel $10 billion to the $38 billion project, which was estimated to finish in 2029. Yet, due to a politically fraught, lawsuit-plagued battle to determine the train’s route, over a decade later, construction costs have ballooned. Now there’s not enough money coming in to finance the project’s completion—especially as rail funding became limited nationwide after the 2009 economic stimulus.

To make matters worse, Trump administration officials have since threatened to pull all funding for the project, with the Federal Railroad Administration’s Ronald Batory citing “a significant retreat from the state’s initial vision and commitment.”

Newsom’s strategy—which he later clarified—is to complete the 110-mile segment already under construction in the state’s Central Valley, then re-evaluate the existing plans to link the system to San Francisco and LA. He told the Fresno Bee he was “confident” the Merced-to-Bakersfield line would be done by 2027 and would “connect to Silicon Valley at some point after.”

The idea to prioritize the Central Valley section wasn’t news to those who follow California’s high-speed rail closely. Newsom’s “announcement” echoed what the California state legislature has been discussing for the past year, and his “plan” was essentially what representatives had voted to recommend in April 2018.

With California’s rail future now in the national spotlight—and just after the House of Representatives discussed a major climate-focused infrastructure package and the possibility of a Green New Deal—the pressure is on to find a new way forward. But if the state has no money for the bookends, the question remains—how?

“We’re absolutely not abandoning [it],” California Sen. Scott Wiener, one of the state’s most outspoken leaders on climate and transportation issues, tells Curbed. “If we don’t do it now, we’ll damage our economy and our climate goals—we just can’t keep expanding our airports and our freeways.”

But Wiener agreed it was up to his fellow representatives to move the project forward. “It’s incumbent on those of us in the legislature to reassure the Bay Area and LA that this is still happening,” he says.

California Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, who represents the area around Stockton in the Central Valley, also felt confident about the message Newsom had for California’s legislators.

“In no way do I believe the governor was saying, ‘That’s it, we’re done,’” Galgiani told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s saying instead of focusing on six different segments at once, let’s get this one done.”

But as Henry Grabar so eloquently argued in Slate, the real problem with building high-speed rail in the U.S. is the way Americans are trying to build it.

Fund segments separately and create regional benefits

The exorbitant cost of rail construction in the U.S. is well-documented, particularly in California. “These projects never have all their dollars in place; they always end up costing more,” says Ethan Elkind, a transportation scholar at the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at UC Berkeley Law.

Elkind, who wrote a book about building LA’s contemporary rail system, notes to Curbed that it took repeated efforts to court voters to fund LA’s countywide Metro system. “1980, 1990, 2008, 2016,” he says, listing various ballot measures. “They always got matching dollars.”

Elkind thinks the state has a better chance at success by breaking up the project into the six regional segments and completing them separately.

In recent years, the state received federal dollars to electrify the regional Bay Area system Caltrain, an important step toward bringing high-speed rail further north. With a station finished in Merced, the state will have to decide how to continue the system into the Bay Area—by either improving an existing stretch of track currently used by the Altamont Corridor Express or digging a new tunnel beneath the Pacheco Pass. But once the train gets to San Jose, it’s relatively smooth sailing to San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center.

California has a robust rail network, the issue is that many passenger routes must share alignments with freight trains, making them less efficient for travel.
California High Speed Rail Authority

It’s a much more time-intensive and geologically complicated endeavor to tunnel through the Tehachapi Mountains, notes Elkind, which is the only real possibility for connecting Bakersfield to LA’s San Fernando Valley and beyond.

That’s why, in addition to prioritizing the Bay Area bookend, he recommends focusing on the LA to San Diego segment; both cities are already planning hubs for the train’s arrival. That train would also travel through Anaheim, where the high-speed rail station is already operational.

Getting all six segments finished would absolutely mean authoring new ballot or bond measures, finding private developers, or seeking additional federal funding streams. But California could look to Texas’s Dallas to Houston train for inspiration, where a Japanese-backed private developer, Texas Central, is building a high-speed route linking two of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, with just one stop midway between them.

That’s not how California’s train was originally sold. Politicians—including Newsom in his speech—talk a lot about “unlocking” economic development in the Central Valley with high-speed rail. The reason that construction began in the Central Valley cities was to make the project more palatable to skeptical constituents in largely Republican districts. In addition to the investment in the state’s lower-income communities, the train has been positioned a way to create access to jobs in San Francisco and LA.

Elkind argues that the real goal here should be to add more jobs in Fresno and Bakersfield, not necessarily to turn these cities into exurbs of San Francisco and LA.

“If this becomes a sprawl-generator for the Central Valley, this project is a disaster,” he says. “It’s dystopian.”

In fact, localized, dense, job-rich development is exactly what Central Valley cities are asking for, says Egon Terplan, regional planning director of SPUR. As author of the report Harnessing High-Speed Rail: How California and its cities can use rail to reshape their growth, Terplan spent months talking to planners and elected officials along the high-speed rail route who asked for more ways to bring that concentrated growth to their cities.

In the Central Valley, which produces much of nation’s food, denser development is also critical to help protect agricultural land from encroaching freeway expansion and sprawl.

“How do we connect the rail investment with policy tools related to economic development and better land-use planning?” says Terplan. In places like Japan, for example, the rail operators partner with developers to build destinations around the stations meant to not only entice passengers, but also to create opportunities for local residents.

Working with high-speed rail as a catalyst is also a natural way for leaders to promote policies that encourage building more housing in city centers and investing in more climate-friendly local transportation systems. But it’s also better for cities’ bottom lines, says Terplan. “That’s the kind of strategic investment that aligns with urban infill and revitalized downtowns.”

Infrastructure built for automobiles doesn’t do that, says Terplan. “The car, by its nature, just takes up more and more space.”

In fact, Bakersfield, which is the southern terminus of the Central Valley rail alignment, is currently completing a freeway widening project that is demolishing neighborhoods less than a mile from the future high-speed rail station.

More trains are critical for climate action

If high-speed rail funding is going to be positioned as the antithesis to the country’s interstate highway system, which decimated downtowns and pushed growth to the fringes of cities, refocusing urban development with rail at its core offers a long-term vision not just for smaller California cities, but any American city that is hoping to reorient itself around a more climate-resilient future.

That’s a timely proposal after a lengthy House transportation committee hearing on the future of American infrastructure last week, and, on the same day, the official announcement of the Green New Deal framework, which notes high-speed rail as critical to its implementation.

Now, headlines that say California’s governor will “scrap high-speed rail” has positioned the state at odds with the wave of national climate activism. That coverage has hurt the project’s ability to get more funding at the federal level.

“What he did was confirm every Republican’s critique,” says Elkind. “We are going to have to fight to complete this project connecting San Francisco to LA now.”

Instead of presenting a single project update, California’s new governor could have used his speech to set ambitious new transportation policy goals—which rail is one part of— which might have influenced the local agendas of other U.S. leaders.

“Everyday transportation issues were very absent from what the governor talked about,” says Bryn Lindblad, deputy director of Climate Resolve, who co-authored the report Lead the Way California: A Transportation Platform to Move Us Forward. The report is undersigned by 50 state advocacy groups to who are calling for low-emission, low-cost transportation improvements that serve communities of greatest need first.

Focusing the conversation about transportation and climate so heavily on the high-speed rail debate ignores far more pressing issues that Americans face getting around, says Lindblad. “It’s like an acceptance of the status quo that’s keeping cars king.”

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