Michael Grunwald - www.politico.com
High-speed rail is turning out to be a slow-speed proposition.
The first segment of California’s first-in-the-nation bullet-train project, currently scheduled for completion in 2018, will not be done until the end of 2022, according to a contract revision the Obama administration quietly approved this morning. That initial 119-mile segment through the relatively flat and empty Central Valley was considered the easiest-to-build stretch of a planned $64 billion line, which is eventually supposed to zip passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in under three hours. So the four-year delay is sure to spark new doubts about whether the state’s—and perhaps the nation’s—most controversial and expensive infrastructure project will ever reach its destination.
“Four years? It just shows that something deep inside this project has gone terribly wrong,” says state legislator Jim Patterson, a Fresno Republican who recently shepherded a bill to increase oversight of high-speed rail through the Democratic-controlled assembly. “The time is coming where we’re going to have to call a halt.”
State and federal officials downplayed the shift in the timetable, saying it partly reflected more ambitious plans for the Central Valley work, and in any case merely ratified construction realities on the ground. Jeff Morales, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said his agency is accelerating its pace after a painfully slow start, with a half dozen construction crews now building overpasses, relocating utilities, and demolishing structures from north of Fresno down to the Bakersfield area.
“Early on, there was a vision, but no clear sense of how to implement that vision,” Morales said. “We have that now, and we’re moving ahead aggressively.”
Still, the authority has yet to lay any tracks, and it has purchased less than half the land it needs in the Central Valley. Today’s official acknowledgment of the postponed construction deadlines is a setback not only for the high-profile California project, but for President Obama’s fading dream of bringing America the super-fast passenger rail that has become commonplace in Europe and Asia.
Obama’s 2009 stimulus package financed two bullet trains, but Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, killed the one that was supposed to connect Tampa, Orlando, and Miami. That left the California train, with proposed speeds of up to 220 miles per hour, as the test track for the country. And while the state’s Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, has backed high-speed rail as a greener alternative to long drives and short flights that will ease congestion on freeways and runways, the project has encountered a slew of political, financial, legal and logistical obstacles over the last seven years.
Federal Railroad Administration officials assigned much of the blame for the lags to the project’s vociferous critics, who have tied it up with a tangle of lawsuits, administrative challenges, and other red tape. They complained that the opponents, especially Central Valley farmers and other not-in-my-back-yard landowners, have gotten far more traction against the railway than they would have against a highway, reflecting a cultural and political bias in favor of traditional asphalt infrastructure. But while they described today’s agreement as a routine bureaucratic clarification, they said they expect an explosive reaction from opponents looking to score political points in Sacramento and Washington.
“We’re just doing due diligence, but everything about California high-speed rail gets magnified and overblown,” said FRA head Sarah Feinberg.
Concerns about the project’s viability, however, extend well beyond NIMBY-ism and car-bias. The estimated price tag is now equivalent to 35 times the annual federal subsidy for Amtrak. The state’s voters approved $9 billion in bonds for high-speed rail, and Brown has diverted some revenue from California’s carbon trading program to the project, but Republicans shut off the federal spigot when they took back the House of Representatives in 2010. So while Morales says there’s enough money to extend the railway north to San Jose, there’s not yet a long-term funding source to finish the entire job. There is some optimism that private firms can help finance construction in anticipation of profits from running the line, but there is also widespread skepticism about the state’s rosy ridership forecasts.
Meanwhile, the choice to start in the middle, in the sparsely populated and economically depressed Central Valley rather than the dense metropolitan areas to the north and south, has been ridiculed as a recipe for a high-priced train to nowhere. The first segment is actually designed to terminate in an empty lot north of Bakersfield. And the authority recently reversed its plans for its second segment, abruptly announcing that it will head north instead of south—understandable given the engineering challenge of tunneling through mountains en route to Los Angeles, but projecting a bit of a whoopsy-daisy vibe.
“It’s like a Saturday Night Live skit,” Patterson said.
The original rationale for starting in the middle was that all stimulus dollars had to be spent by September 2017, and the Central Valley run seemed relatively “shovel-ready.” It didn’t require massive urban redevelopment or daunting tunnels.
Clearly, though, even the out-of-the-way Central Valley section was less shovel-ready than expected. There have been bitter lawsuits over financing and environmental permitting. There have been protracted negotiations over many of the 1400 parcels the state needs to purchase or seize through eminent domain. As late as 2012, California’s high-speed rail agency had just a dozen employees overseeing the megaproject. And after Brown secured the carbon-trading money, the authority expanded its initial scope of work to include electrification of the line.
Morales said the agency is now moving fast enough to spend every dime of its $2.5 billion in stimulus money over the next 15 months, so it wouldn’t have to return any to the Treasury. But it has barely spent half that much over the 77 months since it was first selected for the grant. It hasn’t even put out the contract for the tracks and signaling system in the Central Valley segment. Today’s grant amendment will essentially advance the agency $60 million from the Treasury, so it will have a pot of ready money for land purchases and other time-sensitive expenditures instead of having to wait out the unwieldy federal reimbursement process. But that accommodation could become yet another lightning rod for congressional critics.
Even if the state does spend its federal cash by 2017 and finishes the Central Valley leg by 2022, it will still be years away from a commercially viable system linking the state’s major metropolitan areas. Morales hopes to connect the Central Valley to Silicon Valley by 2025, cutting travel times between Fresno and San Jose by two thirds, but the real payoff won’t come until the line connects the megalopolises of northern and southern California, and it's not clear the political system has the patience to wait. Brown has been a staunch advocate, but Republican politicians in California have been adamantly anti-rail, and even California Democrats like Brown’s lieutenant governor and possible successor, Gavin Newsom, have expressed doubts about the mega-project.
Meanwhile, there has been little progress anywhere else outside California towards Obama’s ambitious vision of a national network of sleek bullet trains. America has the world’s best freight rail, but its inter-city passenger rail is a global joke. The stimulus did boost speeds and improve reliability on some Amtrak lines, like Chicago-St. Louis and Seattle-Portland, but those routes still don't qualify as "high-speed.” Amtrak’s popular Acela service between Boston and Washington does reach 150 miles per hour, but its average speeds are only about half that. Some techies, most prominently Tesla founder Elon Musk, believe the next big thing in mass transportation will be a “Hyperloop” that can propel passengers through vacuum tubes at 700 m.p.h. Trains are at risk of becoming passé before the U.S. can mount a serious effort to build a fast one.
But high-speed rail aficionados think the California project can still become a national model for relieving congestion and accommodating growth in a low-carbon era. The key, they say, is to get the tracks in the ground, to make completion seem inevitable. The project has already created work for 266 small businesses throughout the state and hundreds of workers in the Central Valley, where unemployment is double the state average, and the authority hopes to launch at least a half-dozen additional job sites over the next few months.
“It’s very real now,” Morales said. “People can see that we’re making progress. Obviously, what we need to do is maintain that progress.”