If the past couple weeks are any indication, it's going to be a long winter for California high-speed rail. In late November, a judge issued two rulings against the project: one denying its request for a blanket validation to sell state-backed bonds, another ordering the rail agency to produce a new funding plan. Earlier this month, federal regulators denied a request by the agency to exempt part of the line from an environmental review.
To be sure, none of these decisions ends the project. The agency began hiring workers this fall in preparation for construction of the first segment of the line, and officials have told news outlets they expect to proceed as planned. But the setbacks do threaten to delay the project down the road — no small complication, since $3.3 billion in federal stimulus funds granted to the line must be spent by late 2017.
Of the rulings, the one about funding will prove most troublesome. The Sacramento County Superior Court ruled that the rail authority's 2011 funding plan failed to identify a clear, practical way of paying for the initial segment of the line — from Merced toward Los Angeles — violating the original 2008 referendum approved by voters. That segment is expected to cost about $30 billion; the authority has about $6 billion on hand.
When the project first began, there was great reason to hope that the federal government would supplement its initial investment with billions more later on. But Congressional optimism toward high-speed rail has shifted tremendously since the midterm elections of 2010. As transport scholar Lisa Schweitzer pointed out in a recent Los Angeles Times editorial, "there is no reason to believe that a deeply polarized Washington is in the mood to add to it."
The best way forward — perhaps the only way — is for California to use the recent ruling as motivation to figure out how to pay for the line itself. The planning advocacy group SPUR outlined such a proposal in 2012 (via the California High Speed Rail blog): it replaces any expected federal contributions with a $43 billion combination of gas taxes, road tolls, vehicle fees, regional bonds, cap-and-trade revenues, and value capture. The idea is raw, but it's also promising.
There is a parallel to be drawn here in rail history. In 1835, Boston became the first U.S. rail hub, sparking an interest in the new mode that swept across the young nation. That feat was achieved because a few local visionaries, recognizing they could not rely on money from higher levels of government, went out and raised enough to pay for some pilot lines themselves — certain that in time the railroads would prove their worth. It may be time for California to do the same.