This high-speed rail project is a warning for the US
In 2008, voters in California passed Proposition 1A, giving the state the go-ahead to build a high-speed rail line. In theory, it was a great idea. The train would whisk passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in less than 3 hours. Eventually, it would also link San Diego and Sacramento. It was estimated that it would take until 2020 to complete.
But now it’s 2022, and so far California’s high-speed rail line is just a few concrete bridges and viaducts strewn across the rural Central Valley. Much of the plan had to be changed, redesigned, or even abandoned all together. Now the project is decades late and way over budget. And that isn’t just California’s problem. Because among the many factors that plagued the project, several are baked into the power structure of the US itself.
Watch the video above to understand just how difficult the US makes it to build infrastructure like California’s high-speed rail line.
On November 4th, 2008, the people of California voted to fund this:
A high-speed rail line.
Many countries around the world have had high-speed trains for decades.
And this would be the US’s attempt to finally catch up.
The train would whisk passengers from LA to San Francisco in under 3 hours.
And it was all set to open in 2020.
Today, it’s 2022.
And California’s high speed rail project is famous.
For being a disaster.
“…will be the most expensive project in state history…”
“…a train that’s going to nowhere…”
“…train to nowhere…”
All that’s there today is this one section, still under construction
from Bakersfield to Merced.
But the failure of this rail line isn’t just California’s problem.
It’s an ominous sign for big projects all over the US.
We see other advanced economies all around the world that are able to do this.
So they can do it. So why can’t we?
In other words, what is it about the US that made California’s high-speed rail line
so hard to build?
Just to be clear; this was a pretty good idea.
A lot of people travel between San Francisco and LA.
But the trip takes at least 6 hours by car.
It’s less than an hour by plane
but that’s not counting time in two of the country’s busiest airports.
So a 2-hour and 40 minute trip by high-speed rail made sense.
California just needed to design a route that connected its big cities efficiently.
It’s really about population density
and how quickly you can serve areas of high population density.
This is Ethan Elkind
director for the climate program at UC Berkeley Law School
and host of the local “State of the Bay” radio show.
You really want those centers
where there’s a lot of people working and living
within a few kilometer range of the station.
If you don’t have that, then it’s not worth a high speed rail stop.
But that’s easier said than done.
In the early 2000s, the California High-Speed Rail Authority
considered two routes in Southern California.
This one went straight up the I-5 highway.
While this one, looped eastward and stopped in Palmdale.
It was 34 miles longer and studies estimated it would be 12 minutes slower.
Yet, ultimately, this was the route they chose.
So what happened?
So the Palmdale stop was really added at the behest of
the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors
that wanted to see a stop for high speed rail in Palmdale.
If you have the county that the high-speed rail line is going through opposing it
that can create real political problems
can create litigation problems, can create permitting problems.
Palmdale politicians understandably wanted the train’s riders and business opportunities
to come to their district.
The problem was that they had the power to hold up the entire project to do so.
They have this power because the US government gives it to them.
The US is a federal system
meaning power is divided between the federal government and state governments
which in turn grant some power to local governments.
When it comes to infrastructure, a lot of the power and responsibility
is often on this local level.
That’s the compromise that we make here in the United States.
We believe in local control to some extent, you know, representative democracy.
The downside of that is when you’re trying to get a project at this scale built, you know,
it does take a lot of compromise.
And in order to build a 1300-kilometer high-speed rail line
the State High-Speed Rail Authority had to compromise
with a lot of local governments.
In the Bay Area, politicians pushed for this route, instead of this one,
even though it was much more expensive and slower for travelers coming from San Francisco.
And in the Central Valley, the route stops in all these cities
instead going up this faster route
in order to ensure support from the politicians here.
All of these little compromises began adding up, making the route slower.
And more expensive.
Which was a problem.
Because the funding was already on shaky ground.
When California voted in 2008
the state estimated it would need $33 billion to complete by 2020.
But voters were told that California taxpayers would only have to pay 9 billion.
That’s because the planners were counting on the federal government
to chip in $12-16 billion.
And it made some sense:
The federal government spends tens of billions of dollars a year on transportation infrastructure.
The problem was only a fraction of it goes to trains.
Partly because, unlike most countries with high-speed rail
the US has a stark political divide on whether we even need it.
By 2010, the Democrat-controlled Congress had allocated
just over $3 billion for the project.
but not nearly as much as the state wanted.
But by 2014, the Democrats had lost control of Congress to the Republicans
who opposed this kind of mass-transit project.
“More money for California’s high-speed rail.”
“I call it high-cost rail, is a terrible idea.”
“None of these funds can be used for high speed rail.”
They made it very difficult for any further federal money to reach this project
leaving it well short of funding.
It’s an example of how, in the US
long-term projects can be at the mercy of whichever party is in power,
since they have often have the power to stall it at any time.
And it’s not just the federal government.
Private citizens can also hold things up.
It took less than a year for people to start suing
the California high-speed rail project.
Many cases were based on a law called the California Environmental Quality Act.
Known as CEQA.
CEQA requires the government
to study the environmental effects of any government project,
explore alternatives, and release the findings in a report.
It’s very easy to find a hole in that assessment and then file a lawsuit.
It’s essentially target practice for lawyers.
Many of these lawsuits had legitimate concerns.
Some farmers in the Central Valley
worried about the train damaging their agricultural land
irrigation systems, and crops.
But others, simply used CEQA to try and keep the project from being built in their neighborhood.
This is a common way in the US for private citizens to block important projects
like housing or infrastructure.
It’s not cheap to bring a CEQA lawsuit.
Sometimes you’ve got very powerful homeowners groups that have sued and force changes or
at least delayed the project and run up costs.
For the high-speed rail line, these lawsuits were like roadblocks.
And to clear them, the state had to hire legions of expensive lawyers.
Which added time and costs.
I think you do want to have a participatory system.
You do want to have people able to say their piece
and you want policymakers to respond.
Just that you don’t want to get to the point
where a hyper-local interest has veto over a project
of really statewide importance.
But take away local politicians, and federal drama, and lawsuits, and this project would’ve
still faced problems.
The state body in charge of designing and managing this project
was the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
There was just one problem.
The high speed rail authority had never built anything like this.
Obviously it’s a tried and true technology globally
but it was new in North America when California tried it.
Certainly we didn’t have the competence in- house how to build it here.
When Japan and France were building their high-speed rail networks
they had legions of experienced engineers inside their governments.
But the California High-Speed Rail Authority had to hire consultants and contractors to
handle the design and construction.
These consultants were four times the cost in some cases of what it would have cost to
hire someone just to do it in-house.
Another reason why the Authority had to keep increasing the estimated cost of the project.
Which today, is up to $113 billion to complete the whole line.
But, the state only has enough money to build this section
in the rural Central Valley.
Even if it can get the rest, it will probably take
a few more decades to finish this project.
High-speed rail is a cautionary tale for really big transformative projects in the US.
We need all sorts of rail, transit, bus lanes,
new renewable energy facilities, all the things we need to do
to have a more sustainable and vibrant economy.
But the US is falling further and further behind its peers.
Because the political compromises, under-funding, lawsuits,
and extra costs that hampered California’s high-speed rail
can also happen to any other big project the US takes on.
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