California High Speed Rail Gets Boost


High speed rail in California has been advancing in fits and starts for a number of years, despite a plethora of court challenges from groups in areas that would be impacted by track construction. On Wednesday, however, high speed rail supporters got a significant boost when the state Supreme Court refused to hear a case brought by groups that oppose first-stage funding for the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line.

It’s no secret that US infrastructure is crumbling, and passenger rail throughout the country is laughably inefficient. Yet, it’s also true that making improvements like high speed rail, or even just more modern local subways is a tall order. Local constituencies have often fought any improvements citing a range of concerns from funding questions to the environment to simple NIMBYism. All of these concerns have been brought up at varying points in California’s saga with high speed rail.

California is a large state with several major urban centers that would benefit from being connected more efficiently. High speed rail emerged a few years ago as one of the ways to accomplish this as high speed rail is already utilized in many other countries. Still, any real effort to get the buildout underway has seen immediate court challenges. Wednesday’s case sought to stop the first leg of the project because only an $8.6 billion bond issue has been approved for the project, which is projected to cost $68 billion by completion. An environmental impact study is also missing.

A Sacramento County judge first stopped the project on those grounds, but the state’s Third District Court of Appeal reversed that ruling July 31, kicking it up to the state Supreme Court. Opponents include two counties, Union Pacific Railroad and landowners who say the funding isn’t transparent. The Supreme Court declined to review the case without comment on Wednesday, which will allow the project to move forward, until presumably, the next court challenge and/or the next funding battle.

“This decision reaffirms that the authority can continue building a modern high-speed rail system that connects the state, creates jobs and complies with the law,” Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority board, said in a statement. “We will continue to move forward aggressively to deliver the nation’s first high-speed rail system.”

What happens with California’s high speed rail project could serve as a model for other states – either in its failure or success. If the rail line is completed, travelers could move between Los Angeles and San Francisco in three hours, at speeds of approximately 200 miles per hour. Whether that trip is affordable to average travelers is an open question, as is whether constituencies in the US are willing to undertake the kinds of infrastructure projects we need to modernize the country.