Against All Odds, the California Bullet Train Barrels Forward
Even Trump and furious farmers can’t halt the project (for now)
Guiding the nation’s largest infrastructure project to fruition is no easy feat. Just ask Jeff Morales, who recently announced his resignation as CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Morales didn’t say why he was quitting, but did proclaim he was “very proud of the progress we have made in advancing the nation’s first high-speed rail system, against the odds and in spite of all the obstacles.”
It’s indeed impressive that the bullet train project—which should connect San Francisco to Anaheim, via L.A., by the late 2020s—has gotten several shovels in the ground. Central Valley farmers have waged litigious war on the project since voters approved it in 2008. The latest salvo was a lawsuit challenging the sale of $1.25 billion in state bonds, money that will at least partially be used for electrification of existing commuter rail track in northern California. That track will be used by the bullet train when it starts service, but opponents said this was not part of the original plan and voters are now being duped. A judge disagreed this month, saying the electrification is in line with the overall project, and allowed the bond sale to go through.
That ruling was good news for the train, which is now facing a Republican administration that’s sent mixed signals on its support. The president has previously advocated large infrastructure projects but his transportation secretary—Elaine Chao, wife of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell—froze a $637 million grant that would also help pay for NorCal electrification. The move was pushed by Republican congressmen from California who want federal grants stopped, at least until more funding details are released. There’s a possibility the grant will be freed up when Trump’s budget passes, but nothing is clear with this president.
The rail authority downplayed Chao’s decision, especially as it looks more and more likely that federal government will not be a big source of income for the $64 billion project. “I would not characterize it as a big blow whatsoever,” rail authority spokeswoman Lisa Marie Alley told L.A. Weekly.
The new rail CEO will indeed have to start finding ways to plug that funding hole, likely through private investors. In the interim, construction on viaducts and bridges continues in Fresno and planning begins in earnest on the connection from L.A.’s Union Station to Anaheim.