A High Speed Fail
A safe, reliable, high-speed passenger train connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles was promised to California’s voters when they passed Proposition 1A in 2008. Now, more than ten years after its passage, Gov. Gavin Newsom, during his first State of the State address, announced that he was scaling back the project. Newsom’s announcement was misconstrued as completely abandoning the High-Speed Rail Project altogether. During his address, he said the project would “cost too much and take too long.” After the address, Newsom’s office clarified that it was still Newsom’s goal to finish the project, but that the project could not be fully done as currently organized and funded. The line between Merced and Bakersfield would be completed, and environmental reviews for other lines would also be undertaken.
Newsom has faced criticism on all sides of the political spectrum for his announcement. Progressives have criticized him for scaling back a project that was supposed to be the nation’s flagship high-speed rail system. For progressives, Newsom’s announcement could not have come at a worse time, as Democrats in Congress rally around the Green New Deal introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, which includes investing in high-speed rail as part of its plan. For proponents of the Green New Deal, Newsom’s announcement turns what could have been an impressive and outstanding proof of concept into a significant disappointment. Speaking to Curbed, UC Berkeley Center for Law, Energy, and Environment scholar Ethan Elkind expressed displeasure with Newsom’s announcement, saying, “What he did was confirm every Republican’s critique. We are going to have to fight to complete this project connecting San Francisco to LA now.”
High speed rail has also suddenly become the next battleground in the war between President Trump and the state of California. Mischaracterizing the project as canceled, Trump tweeted that he wanted the money that the federal government gave for high-speed rail back from the state, claiming that California “owe[s] the Federal Government three and a half billion dollars.” Shortly after Trump tweeted this, the Federal Railroad Administration terminated via letter to the California High-Speed Rail Authority the $928 million in grants meant for the project. In the letter, the Federal Railroad Administration also declared its intention to seek repayment of the $2.5 billion in funding made to the project via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The battle over high-speed rail funding crossed over another battle between Trump and Newsom: immigration. After the letter was made public, Newsom accused the Trump administration of rescinding the high-speed rail funding as retaliation against the state for suing alongside fifteen other states to block Trump’s declaration of a national emergency in an effort to build a wall on the US-Mexico border. Trump seemed to confirm Newsom’s claims by tweeting about the high-speed rail again, this time claiming that the high-speed rail funding could have been used to build the border wall.
Regardless of Trump’s misgivings about the project, the high-speed rail in California has struggled from the onset as political considerations rather than efficiency seemed to guide selecting the route between San Francisco and Los Angeles. One particularly glaring route decision was the decision to link Bakersfield and Los Angeles through Palmdale rather than through a direct link. According to Vox, this decision would make the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles 12 minutes longer and would cost $5 billion more. Due to these political considerations, the rail line from San Francisco and Los Angeles which initially in 2009 was expected to cost $35 billion, is now expected to cost $77.3 billion.
Despite the issues with California’s iteration, high-speed rail has worked in other parts of the world and is included in the Green New Deal because it has been shown to reduce air pollution. According to a report by the International Energy Association, “trains carry 8 percent of the world’s motorized passengers and 7 percent of freight, yet use just 2 percent of the energy consumed in the transportation sector.” For example, a flight from Paris to Barcelona emits 238 kilograms of carbon dioxide per passenger but a train ride from Paris to Barcelona only emits 11 kilograms of carbon dioxide per passenger. China started its own high-speed rail project in 2008 and now has built 18,000 miles of rail and counting. High-speed rail can and should be the future of transportation for this country. However, this is only possible if we abandon selfish political considerations and come together to make the investments we need for our future.