Shutterstock

A recent court ruling demands a clear plan to pay for the line — likely one that doesn't involve federal money.

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.

Top image: Oleksiy Mark /Shutterstock.com

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Perspective

    Untangling the Housing Shortage and Gentrification

    Untangling these related but different problems is important, because the tactics for solving one won’t work for the other.

  2. A cyclist rides on the bike lane in the Mid Market neighborhood during Bike to Work Day in San Francisco,
    Perspective

    Why We Need to Dream Bigger Than Bike Lanes

    In the 1930s big auto dreamed up freeways and demanded massive car infrastructure. Micromobility needs its own Futurama—one where cars are marginalized.

  3. Maps

    A Comprehensive Map of American Lynchings

    The practice wasn’t limited to the South, as this new visualization of racial violence in the Jim Crow era proves.

  4. a photo of the Maryland Renaissance Festival
    Life

    The Utopian Vision That Explains Renaissance Fairs

    What’s behind the enduring popularity of all these medieval-themed living-history festivals?

  5. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

×