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.