California’s Bullet Train Goes Off the Rails

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file

A segment of a new high-speed rail corridor under construction in Fresno, California

A week after the introduction of the Green New Deal resolution, designed to build an inclusive economy while fighting the climate crisis, the textbook version of such a project has been essentially cancelled. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom used his State of the State Address to declare that there’s “no path” currently for a high-speed rail network connecting all of the state’s population centers.

Instead of abandoning the project, Newsom has committed to completing the segment connecting Bakersfield, Fresno, and Merced, three cities with a population of around one million in a state pushing 40 million. No line would be preferable to running this line, which would create the false impression that high-speed rail cannot work in America.

California’s bullet train tragedy is a cautionary tale on numerous levels. It’s about whether big infrastructure projects can flourish in the U.S.; whether a determined opposition can put big ideas out of reach; and whether the Green New Deal in theory can ever match the cold reality of constructing a green economy. Policymakers need to learn from this, and fast, because we need high-speed rail in America. 

Transportation comprises more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector, including power generation. Air travel makes up a growing segment of those emissions, retaining its status as a carbon hog while cars and trucks and buses electrify. High-speed rail routes in Europe and Asia, running on electricity, cover similar ground as the 400-mile hop between San Francisco and Los Angeles in approximately the same time as a plane, when accounting for travel to the airport and through security, with dramatically fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And by the way, Los Angeles to San Francisco is the busiest air travel segment in the U.S. by far.

Contrary to feigned conservative outrage, long-haul flights won’t be replaced by trains. But it’s completely reasonable and necessary to use trains as a replacement for short-haul travel. And with a growing population that needs to move around, we’re going to be spending lots of money on transportation: either with more highways and airports, or with a low-carbon alternative. 

After the 2010 midterms, California’s high-speed rail project shifted from one of many demonstrations across the country to the last train standing. As states with new Republican governors sent back stimulus funds for their bullet train concepts, California scooped them up, eventually receiving $3.5 billion in federal dollars. Combined with a nearly $10 billion bond approved in 2008, and what would eventually become a dedicated (if small) funding source through the state’s cap and trade program, the funding was robust enough to start the project.

But in 2008, officials estimated the cost of the project, which would connect Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and all points in between for a fare lower than an airline ticket, at $32 billion, with an opening around 2029. The most recent estimate is $77 billion, with the full segments delayed for years after the initial target date.

Why did the cost inflate? We can concede that the California High-Speed Rail Authority is not a model of adept governance. The initial segment never budgeted for inflation, adding billions just by doing the math correctly. More important, construction costs have ballooned, consistent with how expensive it is to build in the U.S. over the rest of the world. This is not solely due to labor; even U.S. right-to-work regions with weak unions pay more for transit construction than strongly unionized global counterparts. Bad contracting, inattention to superior construction practices, lack of interagency coordination, and just plain mismanagement play a stronger role.

California had its own unique problem: intransigence from a small but vocal set of opponents. The high-speed rail project has been under a mile-by-mile assault. Cascading lawsuits and NIMBY-like resistance to the train’s presence dragged out the timeline, which just through inflation and surging land costs increased the price tag. It’s been a familiar two-step: opponents use available tools to grind projects to a halt, thereby ballooning costs. And then they complain that the projects cost too much.

In the face of all this, Newsom decided he couldn’t see a way forward for the full build-out. But he did preserve the Central Valley segment, while continuing environmental impact reports in the larger population centers, as well as regional projects that electrify existing tracks. “We're going to make high-speed rail a reality,” Newsom said in a clarifying set of tweets.

The main reason he’s plowing forward seems to be reluctance to giving back federal dollars. “I am not interested in sending $3.5 billion in federal funding that was allocated to this project back to Donald Trump,” Newsom said in his State of the State Address. That money must be spent on high-speed rail and would be forfeited if the project were abandoned.

A few billion dollars is a bad reason to finish a doomed demonstration project for high-speed rail. Not only is there scant population between the Central Valley cities, an Amtrak train already serves the route. The bullet train would be faster, but it’s unclear who would need it. If the only high-speed train in the country is a veritable ghost town, how would supporters possibly persuade other cities to take up their own versions? How would California justify building out the rest in the future? 

Moreover, it’s unclear whether the state will have the funds to operate the Central Valley train, even if it finishes building it. When you tally up getting the Bakersfield-to-Merced segment done and other commitments, the real possibility exists of running out of money. At that point, you’ll have built a route that never runs.

Almost any option is preferable to Newsom’s plan. Since a Central Valley-only spoke could be so toxic to the larger project, returning federal dollars for now (which the state might have to do anyway if they don’t complete the project in time) until an administration more friendly to transit infrastructure comes in might be wiser. Alternatively, a high-speed train between Los Angeles and San Diego would serve as a demonstration project people might actually use, and numerous regional transit projects could use funding too.

Or Newsom could think big. California has a $20 billion reserve, some of which could be devoted to the Los Angeles and San Francisco segments. A new rail bond, or a concerted effort at finding private investment, could fill in the gaps.

The larger point is that Green New Deal supporters must draw lessons from this nightmare. The U.S. doesn’t do infrastructure properly, and that’s debilitating to moonshot projects like high-speed rail. Determined opposition can crush even well-made planning. The fallacy of sunk costs leads to good money being thrown after bad. If we don’t learn from this, establish best practices, and prioritize that which can save the planet and create jobs, the vision of a green future will never be realized.

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