When you cast your vote this fall, whether by precinct-issued black-tip marker or, assuming some of them remain, U.S. postal drop box, you won’t merely be grading the progress of that whole great-again thing.

You’ll also be participating in a referendum on California high-speed rail.

Because, in addition to whatever else might motivate voters in the days leading up to Nov. 3 — the ideological persuasion of the next Supreme Court justice, for example, or the tyranny of mandatory face masks — they’ll also be determining, to a very great extent, the future of a government-financed West Coast bullet train.

In that corner, President Trump, no fan of California high-speed rail — and no fan of California politics either for that matter. And in this corner, former Vice President Joe Biden, who rode the commuter train from his Delaware district to D.C. with such frequency he was known as “Amtrak Joe.” He has said he has a high-speed rail plan that would “take millions of vehicles off the road.”

Biden’s plan prioritizes the completion of the national high-speed rail network proposed under the Obama administration, including California’s fiscally and politically challenged system.

“During the Obama and Biden administration, we did see funding for high-speed rail from the federal government,” Brian Annis, chief financial officer for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, told me last week. “And since that time we haven't received new funds. The House has a package to add significant funding for high-speed rail nationally (and) we would hope to get some of that. I do think the next election will be very impactful for the federal position on investing in high-speed rail.”

Annis is referring to the plan rolled out in May by Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., that calls for spending $205 billion to build a national high-speed rail network.

One of the first places to benefit from such an acceleration could be Bakersfield, which has plans for a high-speed rail terminal at Highway 204/Golden State Avenue and F Street that could serve as the impetus for downtown growth — growth that the state rail authority itself encouraged with a $900,000 dispersal of federal funds for a Bakersfield study. That study, spearheaded by Bakersfield Assistant City Manager Jacqui Kitchen, produced a 2018 report that envisioned a residential, commercial and recreational transformation in the city’s central business district.

Ahron Hakimi, executive director of the Kerrn Council of Governments, a local transportation planning agency, says that sort of transformation is realistic if the rail system ever actually comes to fruition.

“The transformation may not happen instantly, especially if the connection is only to the north,” he said. “But once there is a connection to the south, you will see dramatic changes in the price of real estate, especially within walking distance of the station. You can draw a circle of about a mile from (the new rail station) and instead of trashy, low-income (housing, especially to the north) you will literally see high-rise condos. That kind of development is inevitable (although) it will take 10 to 20 years to happen.”

Hakimi is not betting on that outcome, however. Not given the rail authority’s track record.

“Constant budget overruns, constant changes in scope, constantly missing deadlines and making promises that they can't deliver on,” he said. “I'm not optimistic that we're going to see anything up and running in the next 10 years.”

But Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, said a national, adequately funded game plan like the one proposed by Moulton could change that state of affairs quickly.

“If something like that were to pass after January, California could double the speed” of its high-speed rail construction, Kunz said. “It may not be 10 years (from now, as currently planned) if suddenly new money comes in. The authority has been doing all the preliminary legwork in advance for the whole 800-mile system. All the land studies, route studies, assembling the land, getting the permits — that's years of pre-work that nobody sees.

“You hear (about) all this money being spent (and ask), ‘Where's the high-speed trains?’ Well, that's where some of it (has gone). California is doing the whole system up front. So, new pots of money show up and suddenly 20 construction bids go out and you're seeing construction in 20 cities. That's how fast this thing could ramp up.”

That outcome would be especially meaningful in California, which has more vehicles than any other state in the nation, the most ambitious rail plan in terms of miles and logistics, and the biggest financial challenge. Phase one of the project, underway now, will link Bakersfield to Merced — 171 miles of rail — at a cost exceeding $20 billion. The cost of the 82-mile, engineer-challenging Bakersfield-to-Palmdale section, last we checked, was around $18 billion.

Not everyone is excited about this approach — not Democrats from the state’s northern and southern population centers, who think transportation funding ought to go to the congested major urban areas instead of the Central Valley, and not most Republicans, who think the money should be spent on additional lanes of freeway or not at all.

No such controversy exists in Florida, where Virgin Trains USA operates a 125 mph Miami-to-West Palm Beach line called Brightline. Virgin Trains USA is building a 170-mile extension to Orlando, scheduled to open in 2022, with another extension to Tampa in the planning stages. The company is also about to embark on an XpressWest train from Victorville to Las Vegas to begin running in late 2023 along the Interstate 15 median; it will operate at 200 mph, making the 170-mile trip in 85 minutes. And a private consortium called Texas Central is planning a bullet train that would cover the 240 miles between Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes. The project, which received an important environmental review in May after a six-year wait, foresees a 2026 opening date, although funding issues remain unresolved.

Kunz said 10 years ago potential investors smirked during his speeches about high-speed rail’s potential. They’ve had attitude adjustments. Global Infrastructure Partners, a New York fund, purchased an Italian high-speed rail operator in 2018. Fortress Investment Group, a New York firm, funds Brightline, and sees potential in perhaps a dozen other potential projects. Goldman Sachs, Kunz says, has expressed interest in participating in one of his webinars about high-speed rail.

And Microsoft has shown interest in the feasibility of a project to connect Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, with one-hour trips. The line would cost about $50 billion, according to Roger Millar, secretary of transportation for Washington state. That sounds like a lot until one realizes that an additional lane of freeway in each direction would cost $100 billion.

“And guess what,” Kunz said. “Nobody would notice. You'd be in bumper-to-bumper traffic immediately, the second it opened.”

Work on California’s high-speed rail project continues on the ground but, administratively speaking, the project is in something of a holding pattern. Some key decisions have been delayed until December.

“I suspect both the Legislature and High-Speed Rail (Authority) are waiting to see what happens with the presidential election,” Hakimi said. “If Trump is reelected, high-speed rail is likely to implode. If Biden is elected, they are expecting an infusion of cash.”

So, like payroll tax cuts, trade wars and immigration enforcement, high-speed rail is on the ballot this fall.

Robert Price is a journalist for KGET-TV. His column appears here Sundays. Reach him at RobertPrice@KGET.com or via Twitter: @stubblebuzz. The opinions expressed are his own.

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(32) comments

Masked 2020

folks were not talking about choo-choo trains... but plans of moving folks around in the future

She Dee

Yep, "The Train to Nowhere" by SAVOY BROWN is a fun video to watch. Circa 1968-69. This is a view of where it all began!

Zeppo

Wow! As someone who loves the blues, I had not heard of him or The Train to Nowhere. Thank you for that! Although, my favorite song with trains in it is Mystery Train.

Veritas

Nah, Crazy Train by Ozzy. Also seems apropos for the times....LOL

Zeppo

I forgot about that one! Love the guitar in Crazy Train, but at my age, it would give me a headache to hear it full blast, as it should be played! I like Mystery Train because of Presley's voice and echo chamber, just as I love the way it is used in most of Roy Orbison's pieces.

mrdwm1

HSR in the concentrated, local area where Joe Biden has spent his entire life probably could make sense. But how many people are really going to regularly make the trip from LA to SF? Let's be honest. The daily circulation of The Californian is probably higher. This entire plan was never envisioned as more than a commuter rail, serving mainly LA and it's outlying area, and SF and it's outlying area.

Calling it a "state" system was never more than a slight-of-hand move to stick all the rest of us with the bill.

Boris25

Just what we need, a worthless Biden as President and an even more worthless multi-billion dollar "bullet train" no one will ride. The only people coming out ahead on this are individuals like Pelosi who's husband is heavily invested in the project.

She Dee

Boris25, I suppose another coal mine or refinery adjacent to high rise buildings and golf courses would be less of a waste in the Trump/Pence world. What makes you so certain that no one will want to ride the train?

Boris25

Coal and oil keeps the lights on during excessive heat waves unlike solar and wind. Anyway what does coal and oil have to do with a bullet train to now where, people don't ride the train in California. Look at he history of Amtrak.

Zeppo

Correct, Boris!

Zeppo

It's a disgusting waste of taxpayer funds, and was not well thought out by the idiots that think they know better than all of us "little people."

Zeppo

You are correct! All the Senators can use insider trading, as well, and not be punished. They are exempt, but the rest of us aren't.

PopTart

Bobby, you're now beating that democrat drum for two old dinosaurs, Biden and the Bullet Train. Since you now believe you belong in T.V.....stay there....

Zeppo

This has been the greatest waste of taxpayer's money ever! It's not a "high-speed" train, it's a low-speed train with many stops. They will NEVER recover their investment in this and there are many people who would rather use their cars to go right to where they want to end up, rather than getting off a train and hailing a cab to get to a final destination. Also, I cannot see how many people want to ride on a train with a bunch of strangers........I would not.......as well as putting up with crying kids, etc.

REMUDA

Nice pic . . . ! Looks like the beginnings of a long parking garage . . . under a new 'freeway' (if such a thing ever existed).

Trump and most of us agree. Our 'hi-speed' "rail" is called . . . I-FIVE.

Drill here, drill now, drill often . . . make tires (B.F. Goodrich)--tractor & car, lube/oil/diesel/gas containers (and the stuff that goesinem) bullet-proof 'glass', fertilizer, dishes, store bags, take-out dinnerware, radios, iPhones, TV's, car bodies, USPS, ebay & Amazon shipping labels/bags,

Challenge all the car, fuel, prop, state, county, DMV and Assessor taxes (and other illegal pay-for's) . . .

Print more "Recall Newsom" handouts and petitions (remember Davis?) . . .

Veritas

The California High Speed Rail project is an embarrassing mess. Mismanagement, cost overruns, and other problems have plagued this fiasco from day one. This is a Democratic Party failure, 100%. It’s too bad, this could significantly improve the environment in Cali...

Masked 2020

oops......off topic.........[ Cut and Paste].... talking too freely ...Maryanne Trump Barry, President Trump’s older sister, said that her brother "has no principles" in secretly recorded audio obtained by the Washington Post. In 2018, Trump suggested that Barry, who previously served as a federal judge in New York, should be placed at the border amid a wave of refugees entering the United States.

The now-retired appeals court judge and Clinton appointee grumbled about his statement and criticized his actions in office in a conversation secretly recorded by her niece, Mary Trump.

At the time, the administration enacted the "zero tolerance" immigration enforcement policy that stated that an immigrant who crossed the border without permission, including those seeking asylum, would be prosecuted by the Department of Justice. If they crossed with children, they would be separated and handed over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“All he wants to do is appeal to his base,” Barry reportedly said in the audio. “He has no principles. None. None. And his base, I mean my God, if you were a religious person, you want to help people. Not do this.”

Mary Trump, daughter of Trump's brother Fred, recently published a book titled "Too Much and Never Enough" in July that paints an unflattering picture of the Trump family.

In Mary Trump's audio, Barry also expressed frustration with her brother’s demeanor which she said was phony.

“His godd amned tweet and lying, oh my God,” she said. “I’m talking too freely, but you know. The change of stories. The lack of preparation. The lying. Holy s hit.”

“It’s the phoniness of it all. It’s the phoniness and this cruelty. Donald is cruel,” she added.

oopsthereitis

blah, blah, blah.......

Zeppo

...and what do you think your family would think about you if your personal comments would have been recorded????

Zeppo

She is simply ticked off because the money stopped flowing to her from the estate.........

She Dee

I wonder why so many people seem to think that speaking the truth is "all about the money". It's not! In many cases people just get tired of the years of verbal abuse and forced silence. Keeping silent is no longer required in a free society & we women are speaking out now more than ever. We have a support system to help us expose those who are abusers.

Zeppo

As a woman, I'm sick of hearing about "women's issues," the "Me, too" crowd, etc. Too many woman have lied about the abuse from men to make then have any credibility now. The issue should be "us" instead of each group having their own agenda. It separates us as a people.

PopTart

Off your meds?

Former Columnist

Every time I run up 99 through Fresno I'm reminded of the bullet train boondoggle. There are so many OTHER things the State and federal government could be doing for ALL the people of California. So if I get to cast my vote AGAINST HSR November 3rd by not voting for Biden, I'm psyched!

jtjsrch

The LA-SF train should have been routed to what an advisor from the French Railways told the HSR authorities. "LA to B. Then west to the I-5 corridor (CA OWNS it, thus NO land purchases necessary...how 'bout that?) up to the Bay area. The I-5 corridor OWNS land on either side of the current roadways, as well as the wide meridian between the N-S lanes AND about 40+' on either side of the existing roadway, more then enough for 3rd or even 4th lane expansion. But no. A route following the old SP tracks adjacent to 99. Thus reduced time to a commuter train. I have taken the Eurostar from London to Paris so many times I can't remember. SO much better then flying! City center to city center. EZ. No airport jams. I know a lot more about the POS who wanted it to travel the 99 corridor, by why bother? At 75, I will never be able to use it. Bakerspatch once had a fab streetcar system. Bought out (Bribed?) by GM, Goodyear etc, so the streetcars were replaced by diesel smoke spewing buses. Tragic. BTW, when I grew up in La Cresta, I saw the old barns on upper Union street near the SP depot. WHAT a loss for B, the environment etc.

Moardeeb

This is the reason Europe and Asia are so much much advanced than us in the technology of transportation. Small minds, small endeavors.

Trump is no match for California whether he wins or not. And a red vote in California is pretty useless. This is the seat of the resistance. California has taken over the Democratic Party. Harris, Bass, Pelosi, Schiff, Newsom. The future!

You should move to Alabama. You'd love it there.

oopsthereitis

California, a great reason to move elsewhere....anywhere.

Zeppo

....which is why many people are leaving......

Legumedude

The continuing high-speed rail boondoggle is a compelling reason to vote Republlican.

Zeppo

There are many more compelling reasons......

She Dee

If I'm lucky, I might get to ride the train before I die. If I'm not so lucky, at least I can say that I got to wait for that train to nowhere! LOL!

Zeppo

"The Train to Nowhere".........sounds like a great name for a country-western song!

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