President Obama’s new jobs bill includes $50 billion for infrastructure construction, including $10 billion for an infrastructure bank, $4 billion for high-speed rail, and $2 billion for Amtrak. Assuming it can get past the Republican Congress and that it will not be watered down as it already has been since the beginning of the year, the question arises: where to spend the money?
Fortunately, the separate grant for Amtrak suggests that the Northeast Corridor will be funded from a separate pile of money. This means that it’s more feasible to spend 100% of the HSR money in California. I claim that, in light of California’s present funding situation, this is the best possible use of the money, and, furthermore, the federal government should let California know of this as soon as possible, before it lets contracts out to tender.
Recall that California’s present HSR money is sufficient to build from Bakersfield to a point between Fresno and Merced, at least in principle, as the Environmental Impact Report projects slightly higher costs. Recall further that the $8 billion that could be made available to California – Obama’s $4 billion plus matching funds from Proposition 1A – are more or less enough to build from Bakersfield to Sylmar.
More precisely, the cost estimate for Bakersfield-LA is $12.6 billion, but according to CARRD, which independently of this also thinks the cost is going to be $18.6 billion, Palmdale-Sylmar is half the cost of Palmdale-LA, and as a result adding up Bakersfield-Sylmar using the 2009 Business Plan numbers works out to just under $9 billion. The approximately $1 billion in missing funds could either be obtained from local or private sources, or diverted from the plans to build north of Fresno; the segment that goes through and north of Fresno is expected to cost $1-2 billion, and diverting all north-of-Fresno money to Bakersfield-Sylmar should suffice to build the system from Sylmar to Fresno, with a cheap electrified legacy onward connection to LA.
Alternatively, if it turns out that going from Bakersfield to the LA Basin through Tejon Pass rather than through Palmdale is cheaper, then it’s possible to terminate the line in Santa Clarita and have trains continue further south at lower speed. This is in principle possible even through Palmdale, but then the legacy segment of the line would be both longer and curvier.
In other words, by spending all possible HSR money in California now, the Obama administration can guarantee a useful initial operating segment from LA to Fresno. On the margin the benefit of this is much bigger than its share of the cost, since it makes the difference between an upgraded San Joaquins train and a Phase 0 high-speed line.
If the administration funds California in full, then people will be able to ride a fairly long segment at full speed, connecting at lower speed to a major city. Some people are still going to call this a train to nowhere until it connects to San Francisco, but fewer people will use this epithet on LA-Fresno than on Bakersfield-Merced.
The primary problem with American transportation planning is that there is no transportation policy in the US. There is an industrial policy, a jobs policy, and construction for pizzazz on both sides, as well as the joy of hippie-punching among conservatives. An open HSR segment that is not a complete cost or ridership disaster could at least blunt the hippie-punching, if not develop local expertise that could eventually lead to transportation policy. In countries where HSR is in operation, or something close enough to it, the conservatives do not oppose its construction, even quite right-wing ones such as Berlusconi and Cameron.
The worst thing that can be done is spreading the money thin. The not-really-high-speed lines funded elsewhere, or, even worse, funding to Amtrak’s massively overpriced Vision plan, can only lead to small, barely noticeable improvements, ensuring there are plenty of disaffected people to continue the treatment of intercity transportation as a cultural political football. The only place where $4 billion in federal money makes a difference between having a usable system and not having one is California, and this is the basket the administration should put its eggs in.