California High-Speed Rail Gets Back on Track With Biden Infrastructure Plan

Back in 2008, proponents of a high-speed rail line spanning California promised the new network, which would connect Los Angeles and San Francisco in roughly two and a half hours, would serve as both an economic stimulus and a modern-day transformative infrastructure project — the largest transportation development in California since the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869.

“High speed rail is the best environmental alternative to help solve our state’s growing gridlock, reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, reduce dependence on foreign oil, and protect prime agriculture land,” then-state assembly member Cathleen Galgiani, who helped lead the effort, appealed to voters in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Join us as we move California forward.”

[READ: Biden Administration Issues State Infrastructure Report Cards]

That November, voters did — approving Proposition 1A, which allocated $10 billion in bond funding to begin construction. But more than a decade later, California High Speed Rail has been an epic disappointment, plagued by repeated delays, ballooning costs and years of mismanagement and legal and political battles; to date, no segments of the project have been completed. Now, weeks after President Joe Biden unveiled his $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, California’s long-awaited megaproject is once again in the public spotlight, with the prospect of a new federal funding windfall reenergizing both the project’s supporters and myriad critics.

“The cynical way to put it,” says Deike Peters, associate professor of environmental planning at Soka University of America, in Southern California, “is that all the usual suspects are saying all the things you would expect them to say.”

When California’s high-speed rail plan was in its early days, some estimates projected the entire 800-mile network — linking not only Los Angeles and San Francisco but also San Diego, Sacramento and Oakland — would be operational by 2020. Instead, in 2019, with the estimate for the project coming in nearly $40 billion over the first price tag presented to voters, Gov. Gavin Newsom admitted the Los Angeles to San Francisco connection — the original focus of the plan — was a bust. “Let’s be real,” the Democrat said in his State of the State address. “The current project, as planned, would cost too much and take too long.”

So Newsom announced he was shifting focus to completing a much more modest link that was already in progress, between Bakersfield and Merced, in the state’s agricultural Central Valley. But even that plan has suffered repeated setbacks; in late March the Los Angeles Times reported that the project contractor, citing land acquisition complications, was projecting another two-year delay for a section of the route.

To date, the details of Biden’s sweeping new infrastructure proposal, which calls for improvements to the country’s roads, bridges, airports and broadband, among other networks, are mostly vague. The president also recently met with congressional Republicans, who want to scale down the project, with the aim of eventually passing a bipartisan bill.

[SEE: These Are the 10 States With the Best Transportation]

Yet the more than $2 trillion initial proposal does allocate some $80 billion for national rail improvements, including about $20 billion for intercity passenger rail. It’s funding that could “potentially” make its way to the California project, Transportation Secretary and high-speed rail advocate Pete Buttigieg recently told reporters. “We’re pleased with ‘potentially’ at this point,” a spokesperson for the state’s high-speed rail authority told the Fresno Bee.

With the prospect of new federal interest, political supporters, including the mayors of Fresno and San Jose, have renewed their advocacy for the project. On March 18, as the White House was preparing its official infrastructure announcement, Newsom also reappeared as a prominent cheerleader, appearing in a promotional video that promised California high-speed rail — with the help of its new federal partners Biden and Buttigieg — would take 400,000 cars off the road and contribute to a green revolution. “Reimagine the Central Valley,” the governor implores, “and some of the most dynamic and fastest-growing cities in America.”

Critics, unsurprisingly, have found new red meat. In a letter to Buttigieg, California Republicans urged against any new funding, characterizing California high-speed rail as “an Obama-era project” that’s been “a costly failure from day one.” The sentiment was repeated in a recent House subcommittee budget hearing by Rep. Mike Garcia, who recently co-sponsored a bill called Stop the High Speed Money Pit Act.

“There are going to be programs that we should not be funding,” the Republican from Southern California said. “There are programs that are either way behind schedule, that are hemorrhaging with massive overruns, that have little or no meaningful value to the transportation and infrastructure.”

[MORE: Census Shows California Population Growth at a Record Low]

With or without new federal funding, the fate of California High Speed rail remains to be seen, but all the noise surrounding the megaproject is also a distraction from the larger issue, emphasizes Soka professor Peters — the glaring need for transportation infrastructure improvements across the board, especially improving connections in densely populated areas like Southern California.

“It’s absolutely crucial to update and improve and first of all fix the infrastructure that we have,” she says. “People like shiny new things, and meanwhile the bridges are collapsing.”

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