Time to get real about the bullet train: California is building it, so let’s make it work

(Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

Time to get real with the bullet train: California is building it, so let’s make it work

California politics, transportation

George Skelton

Dec. 25, 2023

Gov. Gavin Newsom got the Christmas gift he desperately wanted from President Biden: the crucial part of a train set.

It is a relatively small part that is essential to make this beautiful electric train work.

I’m referring to the much-maligned bullet train that three California governors tried to build

standing upright


When completed, it will transport passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than three hours at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour. At least that’s the sales pitch.

Biden’s gift is a much-needed $3.1 billion grant to continue work on the initial segment of high-speed rail lines in the San Joaquin Valley.

The ambitious project has been widely criticized by many, including myself, over the years as being overpriced and off track from the start.

But let’s be honest: this giant adult toy is going to be built one way or another, whether it’s at a reasonable speed or in a little chug-chug fashion. It’s time we recognize that and focus on making it work as best as possible for everyone. And sooner the better.

You don’t spend $11 billion on a project that California already has and then abandon it.

Critics have consistently argued that money for bullet trains should be spent on more essential projects to reduce homelessness, educate children and widen highways. But that is practically impossible. Most government bonds and federal subsidies can do that


are only used for high-speed trains.

Ardent supporters just as erroneously continually point out that California is the fifth-largest economy in the world. And if countries with smaller economies in Europe and Asia can afford bullet trains, they argue, California certainly can, too.

Wrong. Wrong.

Those are nations, not states. They heavily subsidize high-speed trains and can do so because their wallets are much looser. States have budget balance requirements. And they can’t print money.

It would be politically impossible for California alone to finance the high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco, which is currently expected to cost a whopping $110 billion. And that


estimate continues to grow. It is now roughly three times what voters were told the line would cost when they approved a nearly $10 billion bond issue for the bullet train in 2008.

The longer it takes to build, the more expensive it is, says Brian Kelly, CEO of the California High-Speed ​​Rail Authority.

But it is a lot cheaper than expanding highways and airports.

Could the work already done be converted to use by conventional, non-electrified passenger trains? That would be a lot cheaper.

I think so, says Kelly. But it would not be in the state’s interest to continue using yesterday’s technology. It would be a disaster.

The appeal of electrified trains, besides their fast speed, is that they burn clean energy and not climate-warming fossil fuels.

But like the bullet trains of Europe and Asia, California needs a big chunk of federal funding.

Several years ago, the FBI gave California $3.5 billion for the project. That’s long gone. And it’s all the money Washington has sent, not least because former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, hated the bullet train because its tracks ran through the fields of his constituents .

But now Biden’s Christmas gift to Newsom will allow him to continue building the first 170-mile stretch from Merced to Bakersfield. The


The line should be operational in 2030.

The train to nowhere, critics have been saying for a long time.

That is wrong and insulting, Newsom responded in his first State of the State address in 2019. The people of the Central Valley deserve better.

A 2022 poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found that there was broad public support for continuing construction of the railroad, regardless of whether it initially operated only in farm country. Of registered voters, 56% were in favor, while 35% were against.

But there was a huge partisan divide, with 73% of Democrats in favor of construction and 66% of Republicans opposed.

Newsom said the federal gift represents a vote of confidence and comes at a crucial turning point, giving the project new momentum.

Okay, but


the question




Would anyone bother taking a bullet train from Merced to Bakersfield?

Kelly responds that Amtrak already attracts 1.5 million passengers in the valley each year. And the high-speed train is expected to attract 7 million people.

The next connections will be to the San Francisco Bay Area by 2033, as promised, and later to Los Angeles and Anaheim. No one has an idea when the entire line will be complete.

The total expected costs thereof

San Joaquin Valley

The line rises to $32 billion. That money is far from in order.

Kelly’s goal is to get

to an extra

$5 billion from the same kitty that provided the Christmas gift: the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that Biden pushed through Congress and signed in 2021.

Newsom’s rail project simultaneously received a second boost indirectly from the Biden administration, at least when it approved a $3 billion grant for a planned bullet train between Las Vegas and Southern California.

Kelly plans to connect the California Bullet Train to the Vegas Line and make it easier for Central Valley residents to travel to Sin City by train.

This is a great opportunity for the high-speed rail lines to purchase trains together and operate more efficiently, Kelly says.

But California’s electric train system is still tens of billions of dollars short of funding for completion at no additional cost


dollar in sight.

Private investors have shown no interest. California’s questionable taxpayers would dig deeper. Washington is where the money is. How does Sacramento continue to tap into its vaults?

What they really want to see is people working, Kelly says. We have to keep grinding and moving forward.

If Newsom is a good boy, maybe Washington’s Santa Claus will too

give a present

him another part of the train that will be installed next Christmas.


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