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Opinion

Editorial: Will California’s bullet train be derailed by a waffling governor and a petty president?

LOS ANGELES, CA-FEBRUARY 19, 2019: Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to members of the press after a meeting
Gov. Newsom speaks in Long Beach, Calif. on Feb. 19.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

A little over a decade ago, when California’s bullet train was still a dream on paper, its backers promised that the nation’s first true high-speed rail system would transform the way we travel and yield significant economic rewards for the state. They laid out a vision of innovation and progress and promised a continuation of California’s long history of leading America into the future.

Now, however, the project is stuck — partially built, with billions of dollars spent — without sufficient political support or financial backing to guarantee it will ever be completed. That’s not just bad news for those of us who had hoped for fast, convenient, eco-friendly commutes up and down California, but it also raises questions about whether California, much less the United States, will ever be able to build the modern infrastructure this country needs.

The most recent blow to the bullet train project involved the most myopic and trivial of political battles. On Tuesday the Trump administration announced it would cancel $949 million in promised federal funds for the rail line construction and try to force California to return $2.5 billion already paid.

Newsom has played right into Trump’s spiteful little hands with his mixed messages on the project.
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The announcement came a day after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that California and 15 other states had filed a lawsuit to block President Trump’s nonsensical declaration of a national emergency so he can fund his border wall.

Of course the move to revoke rail funding is retaliation for the lawsuit. Trump himself made that clear with a tweet Tuesday asserting: “The failed Fast Train project in California, where the cost overruns are becoming world record-setting, is hundreds of times more expensive than the desperately needed Wall!”

But this is more than typical Trump bluster. It appears that the Federal Railroad Administration does have some authority to demand repayment if the state fails to make reasonable progress on the project.

And Newsom has played right into Trump’s spiteful little hands with his mixed messages on the project. Newsom tried to have it both ways, first declaring in his State of the State speech last week that there “simply isn’t a path” to complete the rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and then declaring he was fully committed to building the entire project. His wishy-washy statements left the very real impression that California might never get the high-speed rail service that voters approved at the ballot in 2008.

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Is this how California’s ambitious bullet train will ultimately be derailed? By a petty president and a noncommittal governor?

It’s a tragedy that high speed rail is being strangled by small-mindedness and short-term thinking, when climate change demands ambitious, visionary projects to end our dependence on fossil fuels.

Yet the bullet train has been plagued by such missteps from the beginning. Its proponents vastly oversimplified the complexities of the project and dramatically underestimated the costs. (That is why the once $33 billion project is now estimated to cost as much as $100 billion to complete.) Proposition 1A, approved in 2008, put unrealistic but politically popular restrictions on the project, including a mandate that the rail line operate without a subsidy, which is extremely rare for transportation projects.

To qualify for federal stimulus money — the dollars that Trump now wants to revoke — the state had to guarantee that the funds would be spent quickly. So construction began in the Central Valley, which was supposed to be the easiest segment to build but nevertheless was quickly bogged down in delays. Despite his ardent support for high speed rail, former Gov. Jerry Brown could not keep the project on track.

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There were also the more typical challenges that plague major infrastructure projects, including NIMBY opposition to the route and lawsuits filed by critics. There was also flawed decision-making and poor contract management by the California High Speed Rail Authority.

Despite the fact that Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the most outspoken champions of the bullet train, the project has been a partisan football. As soon as President Obama pledged money to build it, GOP leaders in Congress began trying to defund it. And that battle continues. The once proud bipartisan tradition of building infrastructure is gone. Today, the president seems more interested in exacting revenge on his critics and pandering to his political base than investing in modern infrastructure.

This is the larger existential question: How can the United States rise to meet the challenges posed by climate change and continue to be a leader in economic and technological innovation if it can’t rise above personal squabbles and local politics to build a single high speed rail line from the south to the north of this state?

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