Joe Mathews: California’s bullet train needs Joe Biden to save it

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Joe Mathews writes that the real problem of California’s high-speed rail project is management, not money. Photo by Autumn Sky Photography/Shutterstock.

With his economic recovery package and plans for major investments in infrastructure and families, President Biden aims to spend staggering amounts of money to lift the U.S. out of the pandemic. Zocalo commentator Joe Mathews says a chunk of that federal cash should be used to shore up California’s floundering $80 billion high-speed rail project. Some might call that throwing good money after bad, but Mathews says there’s no better way for Biden to fulfill his promise to “build back better.” Plus, the president spent decades commuting via train between Delaware and the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C.

Read Mathews’ column below:

Dear Joe,

I should call you Mr. President, but there’s no time for formalities. You better move fast if you’re going to save California’s high-speed rail project.

No malarkey: It has to be you. California has shown itself incapable of funding, managing, or building deep popular support for this $80 billion train, which would be the first truly high-speed rail system in the United States. You — Amtrak Joe, with your personal devotion to rail and your $2 trillion infrastructure proposal — are the last hope for making it a reality.

Is it worth the political risk of associating yourself with an epic failure? You and your advisors are cautious people who don’t want to give Republicans who oppose infrastructure spending a tempting target. But If you can fix this problematic and high-profile project, you will demonstrate just how committed you are to remaking this country’s infrastructure, and fulfilling your campaign promise to “build back better.”

To succeed, you’ll have to change the mindset around the project. Most of the attention paid to high-speed rail focuses on its lack of money — the state is tens of billions of dollars short of the $80 billion-plus needed for completion. But the project’s real problem is not money but management.

Thirteen years after California voters approved the railway, the California High-Speed Rail Authority still hasn’t managed the basic task of assembling the land necessary for the first piece of the line in the Central Valley. The agency, and its contractors, lack the combination of size, engineering expertise, and management chops to handle a construction project of this scale.

California politicians, instead of supporting the project, are taking it apart. In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom foolishly abandoned the plan to connect the Bay Area to the Central Valley, leaving behind a diminished railway from Bakersfield to Merced. By making high-speed rail a Central Valley-only regional project, Newsom hurt support for rail in other regions, whose politicians are now trying to grab high-speed rail funds for their own local projects.

Joe, high-speed rail will die — unless you intervene soon. The good news is that California’s mismanagement has given your administration many leverage points to justify an intervention.

One leverage point is $929 million in rail funding that the Trump administration pulled back in 2019 after Newsom abandoned the Bay-Area-to-San-Joaquin plan. The second involves $2.6 billion the state received for high-speed rail from the 2009 federal stimulus bill that it still hasn’t spent. California is almost certain to miss a 2022 deadline for using the money, which means you have the power to take it back.

Since you control $3.5 billion that this project needs to stay afloat, you can force Californians to confront the question: Are we serious about completing this train or not?

Your demands should be straightforward. As a condition of California getting the money it needs to keep the project alive—not to mention the tens of billions of additional federal dollars that will be necessary to complete it—you can demand major changes in the management. First, require the replacement of today’s weak, part-time board, and flailing CEO, with a leadership team that you trust. Second, insist on replacing today’s expensive and slow contractors with an engineering and management heavyweight — like Bechtel — that can handle a project of this scale.

Third, insist that the project take the high-speed rail from the Bay Area to L.A. Otherwise, what’s the point?

One cautionary note: Don’t make any big promises now about future funding. Only once your preferred team is in place should you propose a schedule of future federal payments. You’ll also need is the resolve to walk away. If California won’t meet your demands, pull back the money and leave the state with this unfinished mess.

Your love must be tough, but high-speed rail is worth the trouble. With a proven record of success in other countries, high-speed could provide a convenient alternative to flying or driving around our state, and country.

But none of that will happen, Joe, unless you kick California in the butt first.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.



Darrell Satzman