Obama Proposes $4 Billion for HSR

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.


  1. anonymouse

    The reason that Bakersfield-Merced is a train to nowhere is that it doesn’t really connect to anything on either end that would get you to the major population centers in the state. Between LA and Bakersfield, your only option is a bus, and between Merced and the Bay Area, you have the option of a slow and circuitous route via Martinez to Oakland or via Altamont to San Jose, which is at least a bit better and could be used to provide a through service or cross-platform transfer. A line that goes to LA or at least Newhall would at least avoid the disappointment at the end of the high speed ride, when you get to Bakersfield and have to transfer to a bus for a two hour ride to LA on congested freeways.

    • Tom West

      This ignores the fact that the initial segemtn will connected to existing tracks, so it can be used by existing Amtrak California servcies (at higher speeds than present).

      • Alon Levy

        Amtrak California isn’t much to brag about (FRA, heavy diesel loco, 110 mph), especially since it doesn’t connect to LA due to capacity issues on the Tehachapi Loop.

        • Wad

          Amtrak California ridership is something to brag about, though. Whatever we’re doing right or wrong is getting results (people riding trains).

      • anonymouse

        The existing Amtrak California service from Bakersfield to LA is a bus. The existing Amtrak California service from Merced takes 2 hours to get to Emeryville, from where you have to take a bus to get to SF. In the end, you have a mere two transfers for a trip that’s slightly faster than driving, or one transfer for a trip that’s a bit slower. And you still have to spend 2 hours on a bus.

  2. Danny

    I can’t help but think we would get more bang for our buck by investing in the 30/10 plan than investing in CHSRA.

    • Alon Levy

      Maybe. Hopefully, the fact that 30/10 is a loan is going to make sure it gets funded out of a separate pool of money (the infrastructure bank, maybe) than regular transit funding.

      On the other hand, the LA-Bakersfield gap really is the best relatively shovel-ready use of the exact amount of money the administration is proposing. There’s probably more cost-effective investment of the same amount of money in the NEC, but it requires the administration to first get the organization right and get Amtrak to ditch the Master Plan and the Vision in favor of better plans. In contrast, CAHSR funding is something that ideally should be done in the next 2.5 months, before the contracts for Fresno-Merced go out to tender.

    • Andre Lot

      I don’t think it is appropriate to compare 30/10 Los Angeles Metro project with intercity HSR projects (in California or else). They serve different transportation demands: regional/local and intercity/medium distance. Building 30/10 like 30/7 ou even 30/5 will do almost nothing to improve traffic between Bay Area and LA. Building CHSR will not do much for commuters within those areas.

    • Tom West

      Maybe… but define “bang for your buck”. Most riders per capital dollar? Most passsenger-km per dollar? Most CO2 reductions per dollar?

      Also, let’s not forget that HSR in CA is supposed to make an operating profit, unlike the LA’s system under the 30/10 plan.

  3. Adirondacker12800

    There’s transportation policy in the US: build more roads so Real Americans don’t have to come in contact with all the other Americans.

    • Alon Levy

      Even that’s not really a matter of transportation policy. It might have been the policy in 1925, but today the policy is to do whatever local officials, the automakers, and the construction industry are most comfortable with. This is why you have a pro-transit administration subsidizing electric car batteries, and why you have Scott Walker supporting Amtrak when it’s not a project that isn’t marketed with hippie terminology like “high-speed rail.”

      • Stephen Smith

        Do you really think automakers have much influence on US transportation policy anymore? Even the Obama admin’s electric car battery kick seems more his idea than theirs. I think their historical transpo policy influence has been exaggerated (mostly they just got lucky – I don’t think they could have masterminded a more anti-rail political environment than we had around the turn of the last century if they’d tried). And nowadays, it seems damn near nonexistent.

        • Alon Levy

          Not directly, and not just the Big Three, but yes, the auto industry has plenty of power, and had even more back in the 1950s. It doesn’t even have to be explicit: as soon as you accept that the government needs to help key national industries, and as soon as you have a large network of auto dealers and parts manufacturers, politicians are going to voluntarily engage in pro-auto policy.

          At the time of the really strong anti-rail environment, pro-auto policy was a matter of genuine transportation policy. The good roads movement involved a lot of enthusiasts who were involved in auto startups, but it also involved a lot of people who were not, and just wanted an alternative to horses and Southern Pacific. By the time the US stopped having transportation policy and just kept building roads, horses were history and Southern Pacific was on the brink of collapse.

        • EngineerScotty

          There’s a big chunk of the GOP that would like to see Detroit fail–not because of any environmental concerns, of course, but because Detroit is majority-Democratic, and pro-union. (And in many circles, race is an important factor as well).

          • Joseph E

            That may be true, but much of the auto industry has moved to GOP areas in the south. Texas, Florida and Tennessee are in the top 10 states for employment, and the deep-south states from Alabama to S. Carolina are in the next tier, despite their small populations. And many of the new jobs and factories have been going to those states, due to lower union rates and lower wages compared to the Great Lakes region. http://www.cnn.com/2008/US/12/12/map.us.auto/index.html

  4. modestmelody

    Because of the structure of the US Congress, money will never flow to a single project the way you describe. It is practically built into the fabric of our republic that the only policies that pass are those that benefit most congressional districts. Just look at Title I funding under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Designed specifically to drive money to schools that serve impoverished communities to decrease education inequity, Title I funding from its very inception was sent to well over 90% of congressional districts. That has expanded over time.

    Of course concentrating resources on a project that actually has enough demand that it can be self-sufficient, increasing the longevity, local impact, and spillover effects, is perfectly rational, good policy. It’s just terrible politics.

    • Andre Lot

      This is why I think low-interest loans from federal government to specific projects in various states/cities is more effective in case of infrastructure programs that will not, by design, be meant to reach every corner of the country. It takes away the sunken cost factor.

      • Wad

        Another benefit of a loan program is, one would hope, for local areas to pay a little more in exchange for projects defined around local priorities.

        The FTA, in particular, is notorious for creating the “circus seal” culture among transit agencies. The agencies will orient local priorities toward the funding made available to fulfill them.

        Transit agencies want light rail, bus rapid transit, streetcar and whatever other flight of fancy is in New Starts or Small Starts funding, not because there’s necessarily a need for it, but because there’s money available for it. They’ll then try to figure out how to integrate the boodle into the existing system.

        • EngineerScotty

          Sometimes it seems that the capture of federal dollars into the local economy is more important than the transportation outcomes. If the FTA were to start awarding a 50% or 60% match for the digging and filling of holes in the ground; transit agencies ’round the country would be drafting EIS’s for their hole-digging projects left and right.


          • aw

            In the interest of actually employing people with shovels instead of consultants, one would hope that the EIS for a hole digging and filling project would be pretty simple.

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