By Eric Jaffe, December 11, 2013
If the past couple weeks are any indication, it's going to be a long winter for California high-speed rail. In late November,
a judge issued two rulings against the project: one denying its request
for a blanket validation to sell state-backed bonds, another ordering
the rail agency to produce a new funding plan. Earlier this month, federal regulators denied a request by the agency to exempt part of the line from an environmental review.
To be sure, none of these decisions ends the project. The agency began hiring workers this fall in preparation for construction of the first segment of the line, and officials have told news outlets they expect to proceed as planned.
But the setbacks do threaten to delay the project down the road — no
small complication, since $3.3 billion in federal stimulus funds granted
to the line must be spent by late 2017.
Of the rulings, the one about funding will prove most troublesome. The
Sacramento County Superior Court ruled that the rail authority's 2011
funding plan failed to identify a clear, practical way of paying for the
initial segment of the line — from Merced toward Los Angeles —
violating the original 2008 referendum approved by voters. That segment
is expected to cost about $30 billion; the authority has about $6
billion on hand.
When the project first began, there was great reason to hope that the
federal government would supplement its initial investment with billions
more later on. But Congressional optimism toward high-speed rail has
shifted tremendously since the midterm elections of 2010. As transport
scholar Lisa Schweitzer pointed out in a recent Los Angeles Times editorial, "there is no reason to believe that a deeply polarized Washington is in the mood to add to it."
The best way forward — perhaps the only way — is for California to use
the recent ruling as motivation to figure out how to pay for the line
itself. The planning advocacy group SPUR outlined such a proposal in 2012 (via the California High Speed Rail blog):
it replaces any expected federal contributions with a $43 billion
combination of gas taxes, road tolls, vehicle fees, regional bonds,
cap-and-trade revenues, and value capture. The idea is raw, but it's
There is a parallel to be drawn
here in rail history. In 1835, Boston became the first U.S. rail hub,
sparking an interest in the new mode that swept across the young nation.
That feat was achieved because a few local visionaries, recognizing
they could not rely on money from higher levels of government, went out
and raised enough to pay for some pilot lines themselves — certain that
in time the railroads would prove their worth. It may be time for
California to do the same.