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California’s High-Speed Rail Decision is Prudent Politics

February 13, 2019

But It Tells Us Uncomfortable Things About the State of American Ambition

by Sean Jeans-Gail

The United States is incapable of building big things.

That is an uncomfortable thing to say about the country you’re from, but in the year 2019 it is an undeniable truth.

In that light, California Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement that his administration would be narrowing the project’s scope—refocusing on the Central Valley spine between Merced and Bakersfield—may be vexing to advocates, but it’s just good politics.

[Read Rail Passengers' statement on Gov. Newsom's announcement.]

The project has been beset by outside difficulties and poor internal management: a series of lawsuits by NIMBYs and environmental groups (the latter of whom should know better); an indifferent federal partner in Congress, including an actively hostile contingent within the GOP segment of California’s congressional delegation; a poorly chosen corridor, selected to win political support from Central Valley cities afraid they would be left stranded in favor of the state’s twin economic behemoths, Los Angeles and the Bay Area (and let’s be honest, there’s plenty of historical precedent underpinning that fear). If you want a full rundown of everything that went wrong, Jeff Davis at Eno Transportation has a fair—albeit incomplete—summary of the avoidable mistakes.

Faced with these obstacles, none of which he created and most of which were beyond his ability to solve, Gov. Newsom made the politically sensible decision to adjust the California High Speed Rail Authority’s (CAHSRA) focus to the only segment currently under construction. It eases worries in the state legislature and among the public that the project is spiraling out of control and brings a finish line within touching distance.

And despite the headlines you may have read, the Governor demonstrated clear and unequivocal support for increasing passenger rail service in the state.

“We're going to make high-speed rail a reality for [California],” Gov. Newsom wrote yesterday in a series of tweets. “We have the capacity to complete the rail between Merced and Bakersfield. We will continue our regional projects north and south. Finish Phase 1 [environmental] work. Connect the Central Valley to other parts of the state. For those who want to walk away: Abandoning high speed rail means we will have wasted billions of dollars with nothing but broken promises and lawsuits to show for it. I'm not interested in sending $3.5B in federal funding—exclusively allocated for HSR—back to the White House. This is so much more than a train project. It's a transformation project. Anchored by high-speed rail, we can align our economic, workforce, and transportation strategies to revitalize communities across our state.”

Again, these are all good points. And the “regional projects north and south” is most assuredly not a dodge; under Gov. Jerry Brown, the state did a lot of work to resequence capital investment so that passengers outside the Central valley would experience near term improvements to existing services. These investments include:

  • $500 million awarded to fund a series of new stations, track improvements, and equipment to increase connectivity and frequency of service to the Sacramento region as part of the Altamont Corridor’s “Valley Rail” project;

  • Nearly $300 million in grants since 2015 to implement capital or operating improvements to the Pacific Surfliner on the LOSSAN corridor;

  • $250 million secured for the Capitol Corridor’s 10-year capital improvement program.

In that sense, Gov. Newsom’s announcement is more of a rebranding exercise. He’s saying: let’s finish the high-speed spine for the Central Valley, improve the conventional rail systems in the north and south, and when things are up and running and we’ve given voters a taste of a modern, efficient rail service, future leaders can use the foundation we’ve built to finally bring high-speed train service to the rest of the state.

There is successful precedent for this move: the effort to bring a rail transit system to the Seattle metro region had key tenets of this project. In the late 1990’s a sweeping, big idea plan was floundering under mismanagement. Through an initial retrenchment, the project began service in a smaller area and has since grown beyond its initial scope to be a gigantic success.

But the Governor’s announcement also tells us that we’re a country that’s become used to settling for less. That when the going gets tough, we give up and find the path of least resistance. Make no mistake, this isn’t a Californian malaise. If anything, California is more ambitious than the rest of the country, so its failures are more noticeable.

No, this lack of ambition is holding back every infrastructure project in the U.S. It’s a problem that starts in almost every town in the U.S. and flows up to Washington, D.C., where it has congealed into the most dysfunctional, do-nothing Congress in the modern era. Whether you’re a passenger who rides under the Hudson River, or wishes they could ride along the Gulf Coast, or gets stuck in Chicagoland congestion, you’re paying for this malaise in wasted hours and missed connections. And this problem isn’t going away this year, or the next.

So we welcome Gov. Newsom’s wisdom in shoring up a troubled project and recommitting to the achievable. But we also have to ask: when will our ambition return? When will local towns have a partner in Congress and in the White House who are willing to show leadership in returning America to its role as leader in transportation infrastructure?

We don’t know the answer because no one does. But passengers and advocates, be advised: when you see a green shoot— even a Green New Deal shoot—be sure to nurture it. Who knows where it could lead?