Last week’s most important story was not the jobs numbers or the heat, but the California legislature’s close partisan vote to go ahead with its controversial high-speed rail line, a $68 billion bullet train designed to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles in under three hours. The mega-project still faces political, logistical and financial uncertainties, but it now has a path to construction—and as I’ve written, once construction starts it will be tough to stop. That’s a big deal for President Obama and the high-speed rail program he launched in his 2009 stimulus bill. (Yes, I know, I’m predictable.) The California project is Obama’s last chance to launch real high-speed rail, and having it scuttled would have been an embarrassment as well as a disappointment.
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The high-speed program was mostly about higher-speed rail, not just 200 m.p.h. bullet trains, and it’s already promoting faster and more reliable train service in 31 states. But Obama has hyped the program as a chance for Americans to experience the wow machines that are already whipping travelers around Europe and Asia. A planned Tampa-to-Orlando bullet train was supposed to be under construction by now, but Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Tea Party Republican, killed it after taking office. (GOP governors also killed a worthy project in Wisconsin and a dubious project in Ohio.) The California plan is not as shovel-ready as Florida’s—the route for the first 130 miles of track through the Central Valley hasn’t even been finalized—but it has the support of Democratic Governor Jerry Brown.
Like electric cars, solar power, and other stimulus-funded causes, high-speed rail was once bipartisan; former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is an avid supporter, as are local Republicans like Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearingen. But ever since high-speed rail became an Obama priority, Washington Republicans have turned against it en masse. House Government Operations Chairman Darrell Issa has vowed to investigate the California project, and his fellow California Republican, Jeff Denham, wants to strip its funding. There was no new high-speed cash this year, and there probably won’t be as long as the GOP holds the House.
But thanks to 21 Democrats in the California Senate, the Central Valley leg will get $2.6 billion in state bond money, along with $3.2 billion in federal cash that would have returned to Washington if the vote had gone the other way. Critics have mocked the initial Madera-to-Bakersfield route as a train to nowhere, but California has to start somewhere, and construction in the flat and sparsely populated Central Valley will be cheaper and faster than blasting through mountains or cities. Starting in the middle also makes it more likely that the project will be completed, since powerful interests in San Francisco and Los Angeles will clamor for more track.
America can only build so many superhighways, and short-haul flights may become prohibitively expensive as the era of cheap fuel ends. High-speed trains are nice ways to travel, and they can reduce road and air congestion as well as carbon emissions and fuel costs. They can also be extremely profitable; the hope is that once government shows a tangible commitment to the project, private companies will help finance the rest of the infrastructure. Of course, high-speed rail projects also create construction jobs—once construction actually begins.
We’ll see. There will be lawsuits and hearings and other obstacles. But for now, the California project–and Obama’s dream of sleek American bullet trains–is still alive. Last week, that was by no means a sure thing.