San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
Biden can save highspeed rail
Dear Joe: I know I should call you Mr. President, but there’s no time for formalities. You must move fast if you’re going to save California’s highspeed 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 highspeed rail system in the United States. You — Amtrak Joe, with your personal devotion to riding the rail and your multitrilliondollar infrastructure proposal — are now the last, best hope for making it a reality.
Is it worth the political risk of associating yourself with an epic failure? You and your advisers are cautious people who don’t want to give Republicans who oppose infrastructure spending a tempting target. Saving highspeed rail would enrage the House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, whose hostility to progress runs so deep that he has spent years opposing the project even though it would run through his own Bakersfield district.
But should you succeed, the potential rewards extend far beyond California. If you can fix this problematic and highprofile project, you will show the world just how committed you are to remaking this country’s infrastructure, and fulfilling your campaign promise to “build back better.”
Taking on this California headache won’t be easy. To have any chance of success, you’ll have to change the mindset around the project. Most of the attention paid to highspeed rail focuses on its lack of money — it’s short by tens of billions. But the fundamental problem with highspeed rail, as with other megaprojects in wealthy California, is not money, but a lack of management.
The California HighSpeed Rail Authority is a failed agency. Thirteen years after California voters approved the railway, this agency still hasn’t managed the fundamental task of assembling the land it needs to build the first stretch in the San Joaquin Valley. It lacks the size, engineering expertise and management chops to handle a construction project of this scale. Contractors have run amok, adding extra charges while failing to meet deadlines. And the authority’s board is weak and part time.
Leading state politicians, instead of supporting the project, are taking it apart. In early 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom abruptly and foolishly abandoned the plan to connect the first piece of the project from the Bay Area to the Central Valley, leaving behind a diminished rail line running from Bakersfield to Merced. By making highspeed rail a Central Valleyonly regional project, Newsom hurt support for rail in other regions. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, DLos Angeles, has started pushing to redirect highspeed rail’s limited funds to Southern California.
Joe, this unwinding of the project will end in highspeed rail’s eventual demise — unless you intervene, and soon. The good news is that California’s vast mismanagement of the project offers your administration multiple leverage points to jump in and start calling the shots.
Two big leverage points involve money. The first is $929 million in rail funding that the Trump administration pulled back in 2019 after Newsom abandoned the Bay AreatoSan Joaquin plan (and made intemperate remarks about the federal government in the process). The second involves $2.6 billion the state received for highspeed 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.
To put it in your earthy style, Joe, since you control $3.5 billion that this project badly needs to stay afloat, you have California by the balls.
You can force Californians to confront the question: Are we serious about completing this train or not?
Your demands should not be bashful. 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 eventually be necessary to complete it — you can demand major changes in the management and operations of highspeed rail.
First, you should require the resignation of all authority board members — and insist that the governor and Legislature appoint a board, and a new chief executive, of your administration’s choice.
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Second, you need to insist that the new CEO replace the current, ineffective contractors with a real corporate engineering and management heavyweight — I’m thinking Kiewit Corp., or that California giant, Bechtel — that can handle a project of this scale.
And most of all, you must insist that the project plan take the highspeed rail from the Bay Area all the way to L.A. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Some California politicians will balk at such a severe intervention. But don’t give them an inch. When they object, go right after their pretensions of national leadership and say: “Well, if California is no longer interested in building the American future like the governor says, I’d be happy to send California’s money to projects in Texas or Florida, where they still have ambitions.” They should fall in line. After all, you’ll be stepping up to ensure proper management of a project they never bothered to oversee.
One cautionary note: You may be tempted to throw in tens of billions in federal money right now, when the pandemic has opened the door for big federal spending. But slow down. Only once your preferred team is in place should you offer a schedule of future federal payments. And that support must be tied to measurable progress in the construction and testing. Joe, we Californians need to be kept on a short leash.
You’ll have to shrug off criticism, including from Californians who say that the state, having put bond money and capandtrade dollars into the project, deserves to hold the reins. The hard truth about California is that we’ve never built much of anything big without federal assistance — our aqueducts, our highways and our internet all required help from Washington.
But the biggest thing you’ll need is the resolve to walk away. If California won’t meet your demands, or if our leaders undermine the project, you should pull back the money and leave the state to clean up its own unfinished mess.
Your love must be tough, but highspeed rail is worth the trouble. The project also isn’t quite as big a loser as it looks right now. Already, thousands of people are building it in the Central Valley, starting with the replacement of dozens of atgrade crossings that will prevent deadly rail accidents and free up capacity for freight rail. Highspeed rail has a proven record of success in other countries, and could provide a more convenient, climatefriendlier alternative to flying or driving.
But none of that will happen, Joe, unless you kick California in the butt right now.
A: B: C:
Your love must be tough, Mr. President, but highspeed rail is worth the trouble.
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