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Biden plan could save California high-speed rail — if state leaders can ever unite


A high-speed rail viaduct is seen paralleling Highway 99 near Fresno, Calif., on Oct. 9, 2019. | Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo

SAN FRANCISCO — President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan could be a sudden lifeline for California’s vexing high-speed rail project — if the state can get its own house in order.

Biden has given California high-speed rail leaders new hope with his trillion-dollar infusion for infrastructure and a focus on climate change and jobs. That’s a marked reversal from former President Donald Trump’s attempts to withdraw federal dollars from the project envisioned to run from the San Francisco Bay Area to Southern California.

Yet a partisan split in the Central Valley and a dissatisfied group of powerful Los Angeles Democrats could discourage the Biden administration from investing political capital on California’s system. Its high costs and political messiness were enough to discourage a House Transportation rail subcommittee from inviting California officials to a high-speed rail hearing this week in a glaring omission.

“Nobody’s going to want to jump in the middle of that fight,” said Dan Richard, a former board chair of the high-speed rail authority, urging state leaders to resolve their differences before they lobby Washington.

California’s ultimate ambitions are to deliver rail passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in less than three hours. Amtrak runs trains between the Bay Area and Southern California, but scheduled routes can take anywhere from nine to 12 hours and may involve a bus transfer — making them impractical for anybody without a leisurely schedule.

The state has long dreamt about a north-south train of the sort pioneered by Europe and Japan, and voters in 2008 were sold on that vision when they approved $10 billion for the project in 2008. While California has an abundance of cheap flights that connect most points in roughly an hour, state leaders have portrayed high-speed rail as an environmentally friendly alternative that avoids the hassles of navigating airports or roadways.

But as high-speed rail costs have risen and momentum has waned, state and local officials have lost faith that the project will ever come to full fruition, and many have shifted to looking out for their own communities. Even the ambitious Gov. Gavin Newsom doused hopes in his first State of the State speech in 2019 when he said there “isn’t a path” to complete the full line — a stance that further fueled Washington skepticism about the project.

For now, the state plans to complete just 171 miles of track between two smaller Central Valley towns over the next nine years — a far cry from the 525 miles for the full line that voters once committed to.

Project officials know this is their moment to strike in Washington. Brian Kelly, CEO of the High-Speed Rail Authority, estimates that California’s project could vie for some $70 billion in federal funding between Biden’s proposed pots of money for intercity rail, “transformative” infrastructure projects and other types of competitive grants for transportation.

“I see tens of billions that are in this program that we can compete for, and candidly we’re going to compete for,” Kelly said.

The in-state tensions are the result of steadily rising costs, limited funding and decisions based on topography, economics and politics.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown chose to start construction in the Central Valley in order to stanch the region’s economic bleeding during the Great Recession. It was also the easiest place to begin construction, with lower property values and less development, and it didn’t require immediately tunneling through either of the mountain ranges that frame the valley: the Tehachapis to the south and the Pacheco Pass, which separates the Central Valley from Silicon Valley, to the north.

State lawmakers fear that high-speed rail will never have enough money to fulfill the original San Francisco-to-Los Angeles vision. The price tag more than doubled from $33 billion in 2008 to $68 billion in 2012 — and is roughly $80 billion to $100 billion now.

Between the $10 billion bond, existing federal funds and an annual flow of about $500 million from the state’s cap-and-trade auction, California projects it has just enough funding to complete the 171-mile segment, at around $23 billion.

That sense of financial scarcity has prompted some to try to redirect some of the money toward regional rail in Southern California and the Bay Area. Officials plan to ask state lawmakers this month for the rest of the bond money to finish the project’s first usable segment in the Central Valley. Approving that request will commit the state to the Central Valley, without a guarantee that there will be funding for the rest of the system.

“It would be hard to expect an all-out federal grant that would get us through the Pacheco tunnels, and certainly not through the Tehachapis,” said Lou Thompson, a longtime rail consultant who chairs a Legislature-established peer review group examining the project. “One way or another, you have to come up with a new state matching program or you have to say, ‘This still won’t get us there.'”

Los Angeles lawmakers, who now control both the Senate and Assembly transportation committees, aren’t quite ready to commit. They argue that more of the early spending should go toward the state’s big population centers and local rail systems that will eventually link to the high-speed line. They say that by focusing on the Central Valley, the state is sapping the political appetite to support funding for the overall project.

“How do we do a project in such a way that we have the political will to finish it? Because it’s going to take a lot of money,” said Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D-Glendale). “We need to have a conversation about the next tranche of money and how we actually do all these things and what is the order by which we do it.”

The more conservative Central Valley is also far from unified even though the project has created several thousand union jobs there. Despite bipartisan support in 2008, high-speed rail became a political football for Republicans after former President Barack Obama embraced it in his economic stimulus package. Trump stoked divisions when he seized on Newsom’s retrenchment and attempted to withdraw nearly $1 billion of the $3.5 billion that it received under Obama. Central Valley Republicans like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who supported the project as a state lawmaker, are now diehard opponents.

“California Democrats and the Biden administration are fixated on a failed project that is saddling billions of dollars of debt on hardworking Californians,” McCarthy said in a statement. “California High Speed Rail represents everything that is wrong with Democrat priorities that cost too much and deliver so little.”

At the least, Biden’s win has helped spare the project from Trump funding cuts. The new administration is expected to restore the federal funding that Trump moved to withdraw and is likely to extend a deadline to complete a usable segment by 2022.

But Biden officials have been holding the project at a rhetorical arm’s length when it comes to new funding, careful to speak only in general support of high-speed rail nationally. Kelly wasn’t invited to testify at this week’s House hearing on high-speed rail, despite being in charge of the only publicly funded high-speed project in the country that’s actually under construction.

“It’s been something that President Biden is very familiar with and Secretary Buttigieg is also quite interested in, but whether it will be the cavalry coming in over the hill to rescue the California high-speed rail project is another question entirely,” Thompson said. “If there is any support for high-speed rail, I’m sure California will have a solid claim on a share of it, but what that share might be and what it would be a share of, I don’t think anybody knows right now.”

State lawmakers hold the purse strings on the remaining $4.2 billion in state bond money, which Newsom plans to ask them to approve in next month’s budget negotiations, according to the High-Speed Rail Authority’s latest business plan. It’s their big opportunity to shift funding from the Central Valley to the “bookends,” similar to what happened in 2012 when Brown agreed to spend $1.1 billion of high-speed rail money on electrifying a commuter line in the Bay Area, remodeling Los Angeles’ Union Station and elevating a segment of railroad in Los Angeles to reduce traffic.

“What is going on now with some members of the Legislature I think is old-fashioned leverage,” said Rep. Jim Costa, a Fresno Democrat who has sponsored a bill (H.R. 867 (117)) that would authorize $8 billion annually for high-speed rail through 2025. “What’s taking place in terms of the debate among some of the Southern California folks is really they don’t see the immediate benefit to them at this point of high-speed rail, and they see money at the state level and the federal level and so they want to get money now.”

Costa also wants to create an annual high-speed rail authorization similar to roads, ports, harbors and other transportation infrastructure.

Friedman said she’d like federal funding for Los Angeles rail projects ahead of the Olympics in 2028. “I would love to see the Biden administration help us complete our rail goals in Los Angeles with an eye toward the Olympics,” she said. “I think we should at least have a discussion about the best way to complete the project, and it could be that the Biden infrastructure package helps make up our mind,” she said.

The influx of federal funding could smooth over short-term conflicts. But whatever lump sum the project might win wouldn’t likely be enough to get it through mountains that divide the Central Valley from Los Angeles and the Bay Area. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo estimated getting through Pacheco Pass would take most of Biden’s $20 billion for intercity rail. “We need to connect the affordable housing in the Central Valley to all the jobs in Silicon Valley, and to do that it’s going to take about $13-14 billion,” he said last week.

More realistically, federal funding could help the project finish the initial Central Valley segment and complete environmental permitting along the entire route from San Francisco to Anaheim by mid-2023, which might get it to a place where private investors would be interested. But the state still projects that Central Valley service will require an operating subsidy of about $50 million per year, and the legislative analyst has warned that subsidizing service could violate the terms of the 2008 bond.

“The project is so complex, it’s a political Rubik’s cube,” said Martha Escutia, a former Democratic state lawmaker from Los Angeles who sits on the rail authority’s board. “All the pieces are twisting and turning, and it’ll take a while before you get it all bingo, wham.”

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