High speed rail, championed by President Joe Biden on the campaign trail, was shunted to the sideline in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package approved by the Senate Tuesday.
It does, however, include $66 billion for intercity rail programs, which the White House calls “the largest investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak 50 years ago.”
Most of that money is earmarked for the Northeast Corridor, however.
The North Atlantic Rail is a $105 billion plan for a new network of high speed and high performance intercity and regional rail service connecting smaller cities throughout all six New England states and New York, including a new 100-minute rail service from Boston to New York via Providence, Hartford, New Haven, and Long Island.
That doesn’t mean the California project, were construction is underway on a 120-mile stretch between Wasco and Madera in the Central Valley, will automatically come out empty-handed.
“I don’t think California High Speed Rail has been locked out of the bill,” said Marc Joffe, a senior analyst with the Reason Foundation. “There is $12 billion of non-Amtrak intercity grants available in this bill.”
“They could get something on top of the $3.5 billion the federal government already granted, but it would be a fraction of the $12 billion — because the federal government usually wants to divide the funding among the states — so not enough to finish the project,” Joffe said.
The costs for California’s massive high speed rail project that have soared to $100 billion has lukewarm support in its home state as well.
California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon penned a letter to U.S. DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg in June asking the feds to amend an agreement for almost $1 billion in approved and committed funds intended to help finish the 119-mile Central Valley spine of the bullet train project. He wants the DOT to allow California to use the money without overhead electrification of the tracks.
Joffe agreed with Rendon, saying “he doesn’t think it would be fair to residents in the Central Valley to not finish the first 119 miles.”
Rail proponents have argued that without electrification the project won’t meet the definition of high-speed rail. But a diesel engine could get up to 125 miles an hour, Joffe said.
“It is fairly high-speed rail, but it wouldn’t meet the definition of high speed, which is plus 155 miles per hour,” Joffe said.
Funding for the project had been included in the budget signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in July, but legislators in June cut the $4.2 billion Newsom had included in his proposed budget.
The project that was supposed to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco has struggled to garner enough support.
California voters approved $10 billion of general obligation bonds to build the bullet train 13 years ago. But Democrats, who hold a majority in both houses, are divided over spending money to finish building the stretch in the Central Valley.
The debate has been over whether to spend more to complete work in the Central Valley or pour more into projects in the large metro areas.
The new plan estimates that the cost of building the full Los Angeles-to-San Francisco system could reach $100 billion. That is substantially more than the $77 billion estimated when the Trump Administration paused federal funding for the project two years ago — and much more than the $45 billion expected in 2010’s plan, which also included a second phase to Sacramento that is not included in the new, higher tally.
The rail authority continues to project a mid-2030s startup, despite a $80 billion funding gap to actually build the full line.