The Perversity of California’s High-Speed Rail Authority

Yonah Freemark praises the decision, by California and the federal government, to build the Fresno-Hanford link in its planned high-speed rail corridor first. Was the decision made because Fresno-Hanford is the most economically viable HSR link in the state? Nope. The goal is to demonstrate that the HSR authorities are committed to building a high-speed link between San Diego and San Francisco:

If Congress fails to authorize future funds for the project, California will be stuck with a route between a mid-size city and a small one. Links to the economic powerhouses of the state — in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and San Diego — and even to the state capital in Sacramento will not be available. And that may make the project less visible and therefore less of a long-term goal for the state’s political and economic leaders. It may be easier to promote a scheme in a dense urban zone that clearly demands improved transportation than one that some Republicans are surely going to start labeling the “bullet train to nowhere” by the time the holiday break is over.

“Bullet train to nowhere” has a nice ring to it. 

Other corridors under consideration for the first $4.3 billion in expenditures included the routes between San Francisco and San Jose; Fresno and Merced; and Los Angeles and Bakersfield. But in awarding California some $715 million for the project last month, the Federal Railroad Administration made clear that it wanted its dollars spent on the Central Valley. This left the state with virtually no choice but to pick a segment between Bakersfield and Merced.

Imagine if some fraction of that $4.3 billion were devoted to improving speeds on the Los Angeles to San Diego route, one of Amtrak’s busiest. Or if the San Francisco to San Jose route dramatically improved connectivity in the Bay Area, giving a small boost to the region’s economic potential regardless of whether the entire route is built.  

This strikes me as a self-evidently bad idea. Given our fiscal shape, we can’t afford any more Fresno-Hanfords. San Francisco-San Joses or Los Angeles-San Diegos are a possibility, provided they pay for themselves in a relatively straightforward way. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Affairs, a member of the ...