If there were ever a time to question the future of the American high-speed rail project, this may well be it: Republicans in Congress have threatened to reduce transportation spending, several states have backed away from previous commitments to projects that once seemed set in stone, and a couple of already funded projects are likely to be canceled.
And yet California is steaming ahead, its new Governor Jerry Brown a strong supporter of the $45 billion state high-speed rail project and its rail authority endowed with billions of dollars in state and federal funds to advance the scheme. What has always been a long shot is coming to appear increasingly realistic, despite the difficulties that must still be surmounted before the full 520 miles fast train network is in place.
The commitment of both California and the federal government to the project was solidified this week with the announcement by the rail authority that its engineers had selected a 65-mile route in the Central Valley to begin construction roughly between Fresno and Hanford, where two stations will be built. This choice makes clear that the state assumes that the entire line will be constructed, since other sections of the full corridor arguably have more independent utility.
The recommendation will be considered in full by the rail authority on December 2nd when the final decision will be made, but in all likelihood this corridor will be the first constructed. It could be ready for intercity rail service by 2017. To make clear just how much of a service improvement this project will offer, consider this: The current Amtrak San Joaquin service between Fresno and Bakersfield completes the 113 mile run in just over two hours; the fast train link will reduce it to just 37 minutes. (Only about half of that corridor will be completed thanks to the dollars being dispensed here.)
Other corridors under consideration for the first $4.3 billion in expenditures included the routes between San Francisco and San Jose; Fresno and Merced; and Los Angeles and Bakersfield. But in awarding California some $715 million for the project last month, the Federal Railroad Administration made clear that it wanted its dollars spent on the Central Valley. This left the state with virtually no choice but to pick a segment between Bakersfield and Merced.
The advantage of this route is that it confirms that the rail authority’s mission really is to complete the whole project. As CEO Roelof van Ark noted,
“Starting here gives us flexibility to build in either direction – north and west to the Bay Area or south to Los Angeles – as more federal dollars become available. The funding other states are sending back to Washington – if redirected to California – would allow us to extend initial construction all the way to Bakersfield.”
Indeed, by choosing to concentrate in the state’s hinterlands rather than its urban centers, it is emphasizing the fact that high-speed rail is above all about intercity connections. Had the money been used in a place where it could have been used for local commuter rail in the interim before construction of the whole line, there might have been little motivation to move forward with a political push for more money to complete the project. And this route will also feature the highest speeds in the system at 220 mph, not true of other sections. It will be a showpiece.
Of course, the choice of the Fresno-Hanford route comes with a number of risks, mostly related to the potential future lack of funding. If Congress fails to authorize future funds for the project, California will be stuck with a route between a mid-size city and a small one. Links to the economic powerhouses of the state — in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and San Diego — and even to the state capital in Sacramento will not be available. And that may make the project less visible and therefore less of a long-term goal for the state’s political and economic leaders. It may be easier to promote a scheme in a dense urban zone that clearly demands improved transportation than one that some Republicans are surely going to start labeling the “bullet train to nowhere” by the time the holiday break is over.
Nevertheless, the rail authority notes that it expects to have about $150 million left over from the total expenditures to spend on connections to the existing Amtrak route if necessary; this would at least allow the San Joaquin trains to speed through this segment more quickly. Moreover, the state has an additional $5 billion of its own money to eventually be devoted to the rail project; these funds could theoretically be liberated for more construction even without federal dollars in the future (the current law requires them to have a 50-50 match from other sources to be spent).
Most importantly, momentum is on this project’s side. The election of Mr. Brown to the governorship and the state’s strongly pro-high speed rail delegation in the U.S. Senate and House means that there will be continued support for the program over the next several years. On Thanksgiving, that’s something to give thanks for.
Image above: Map of the initial route segment, from California High-Speed Rail Authority