Biden Infrastructure Promises Give Hope to California Bullet Train Chief

Golden State lawmakers scaled back their criticism of the California High-Speed Rail Project — the largest infrastructure program in the nation — instead casting hopeful toward more collaboration and funding from the federal government. 

Construction continues on an elevated section of high-speed rail track near downtown Fresno, California. (Courthouse News photo / Matthew Renda)

(CN) — The head of California’s bullet train project told state lawmakers Tuesday that the state should wait to see the posture of the nascent Biden administration before committing to spending plans of their own.

Brian Kelly, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, acknowledged that the coronavirus pandemic has had dire impacts to the agency’s business plan. But he said a new presidential administration in Washington may present a boon for the struggling infrastructure project. 

“Policy makers, this governor, would all benefit from understanding where the federal government is on this technology before I would seek additional state resources,” Kelly told lawmakers in Sacramento during an informational hearing on the high-speed rail project. 

Kelly appeared remotely during the hearing to apprise lawmakers of the newly updated business plan for the nation’s largest infrastructure project that has been beset by costly delays, lawsuits and an ever-ballooning price tag. 

As is typical in these hearings, Kelly revealed the price tag for the slimmed-down 119-mile version of the rail project has gone up. Construction costs have skyrocketed by $330 million and the rail authority is asking for an additional $1 billion in contingency funds, particularly after the pandemic proved humans are not particularly adept at anticipating risk. 

“Risk is all around us and that is a lesson we have learned from Covid-19,” Kelly said. 

But part of the costs also reflects the rail authority’s desire to build in extensions into the 119-mile segment to make the initial rail run 171 miles from downtown Merced, through downtown Fresno to downtown Bakersfield. 

Previously, the northern terminus of the project was slated to be placed in a fruit orchard near County Road 29 somewhere outside of Merced. Similarly, the southern terminus was proposed to be somewhere outside of Bakersfield’s central business district. 

“Connecting downtown urban areas make sense for rail travel,” Kelly said. 

But the leader of the rail authority was not there to ask lawmakers to increase contributions from state coffers or up the ante from cap-and-trade proceeds, but to wait and see how the Biden administration intends to approach high-speed rail. 

“We anticipate a longer more stable federal commitment for this program,” Kelly said. 

President Joe Biden talked up a major infrastructure package on the campaign trail and has continued to tout it as a priority since taking the mantle of the federal government in January. 

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has also talked about high-speed rail in particular as a means of improving transportation in a climate-friendly manner. 

“I just don’t know why people in other countries ought to have better train service or more investment in high-speed train service than Americans do,” Buttigieg said in a recent appearance on MSNBC. 

Kelly said legal fights between the rail authority and the federal government are winding down, including an imminent settlement of a case started when the Trump administration attempted to claw back about $1 billion of the $3.5 billion allocated to the state during the Barack Obama administration.

Kelly further said that by extending the rail into downtown areas on either end of the track, the authority can begin to hone in on its goal of having an operating segment in the Central Valley before building the track out to connect the San Francisco Bay Area and eventually Los Angeles. 

“We are committed to get it going in the valley, but ultimately we are still headed for a San Fancisco to Los Angeles run,” he said. “We want to move people between those two points in under three hours.”

The presentation drew mostly positive reviews from the senators in attendance. 

“A couple of years ago it was not fun to be supportive of this project, but Brian Kelly and Brian Annis have brought a renewed vitality to the high- speed rail project and I have significantly more confidence in this program than I have had in a long time,” said Senator Bill Dodd, D-Napa. 

State Senator Brian Dahle, R-Berber, one of the few Republican voices on the transportation committee, said the project is a boondoggle and should be abandoned. 

“Maybe it’s time to plow it down and plant something different,” Dahle said. “The voters got sold something that is definitely not going to come through.”

Not all Democratic senators were bullish on the project, either. 

State Senator Maria Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, said the funding picture relied more on wish-casting than brass tacks. 

“Looks like there are a lot of holes when it comes to funding, and wishful thinking,” she said. 

She noted the private partnerships have yet to materialize and that state taxpayers are footing nearly 80% of the bill for a project that will not serve the most populous parts of the state until well into the 2030s. 

Nevertheless, Kelly’s presentation received far more positive feedback than in recent years when criticism of the rail authority’s ability to shepherd the project was scathing and bipartisan. 

Public comment too featured mostly speakers in support of the project, although many of them had a vested interest as contractors and construction workers, some of whom are working directly on the project. 

For now, it appears the Legislature is ready to wait until the details regarding Biden’s infrastructure package are revealed before handwringing over budget explosions and construction delays can recommence.

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