FRESNO, Calif. — On an average day, 1,000 workers head to dozens of construction sites spread over 119 miles across California’s vast Central Valley.
Their task is monumental: Build the bridges and crossings designed to carry bullet trains that will form the backbone of a $105 billion, 500-mile, high-speed rail system whose scale has drawn comparisons to the construction of the interstate highway system.
Of course, 14 years after voters approved a nearly $10 billion bond to start building the rail system that would whisk riders from Los Angeles to San Francisco at speeds of more than 200 miles per hour, many California residents have long since lost track of what is being built where, and when or if it will ever be completed.
But if, as President Biden said in his State of the Union address, the nation is now entering an “infrastructure decade,” there is no more dramatic testing ground — or more cautionary spectacle — than California’s high-speed rail plan.
In 2008, when the bond measure passed, the project symbolized the state’s ambition to build and think big. But in the years since then, the project has become something else: an alarming vision of a nation that seems incapable of completing the transformative projects necessary to confront 21st century challenges. The rail’s planned route and scope have changed as a result of ballooning costs, political squabbles and legal challenges.
“We just have a fundamental problem in the United States of building large projects,” said Yonah Freemark, a researcher with the Urban Institute who has been following the rail plan for more than a decade. “And California’s high-speed rail is the largest of the projects.”
Never have the cases for and against the effort been so divergent.
But an eye-popping price tag and fundamental questions about political support are creating a critical juncture for either achieving the project’s full vision or leaving it in an expensive limbo.
“The cost of indecision on these projects is enormous,” said Eric Eidlin, a scholar with the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University who has consulted on station planning efforts for the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
Proponents say the project has always been much more than a train. If completed, they say, the system would be an economic super charger connecting two of the nation’s biggest population centers and a desperately needed alternative to choked freeways and jammed airports as climate change becomes an ever urgent challenge.
“We are the fifth largest economy in the world, and therefore I think we have to figure out how to do it,” said Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who as governor championed the 2008 bond measure. “Failure’s not an option here.”
Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor at Oxford University and the IT University of Copenhagen who has studied high-speed rail projects around the world, said that such projects nearly always cost much more and take much longer to build than initially projected.
The difference between high-speed rail projects that limp along for decades and those that start running trains isn’t money, he said. It’s political energy.
“The money will be found if the political will is there,” he said.
But political will within California has ebbed as patience among leaders has worn thin. The most significant turning point was the announcement three years ago by Gov. Gavin Newsom in his first State of the State address that California would start operating a truncated section of the route that would run from Bakersfield to Merced in the state’s largely rural Central Valley.
That stunned supporters and fueled critics who believed he was publicly announcing the full project’s demise, although Mr. Newsom later said the change in priority wasn’t meant to preclude finishing the full route.
Some state lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, now say the effort has become flawed and unwieldy, perhaps beyond saving. Critics say that rail officials are seeking a blank check from state coffers, and that their timeline for completion is stretching unaccountably into the future.
“The project is by all objective measures in distress,” said Anthony Rendon, California Assembly Speaker, a Democrat. “Connecting the two largest urban areas in the state is the best thing we can do from an environmental standpoint and an economic development standpoint. To link two cities in the Central Valley would doom the project.”
Instead of dedicating $4.2 billion of bond money in this year’s budget to, as Mr. Newsom put it, “finish the job in the Central Valley,” Mr. Rendon said he has asked the governor to withhold funds from the project and spend more on improving existing transit systems, particularly in the Los Angeles area, which includes his district.
“What we’re focused on is building ridership for an eventual high-speed rail project, and the way you do that is by working on the bookends,” he said.
In a recent interview, Mr. Newsom said his decision to prioritize the Central Valley segment was based on the calculation that the prospects for the full project were best if some part of it were operating.
“The pivot was never to abandon the vision,” he said. “The long term is still there.”
He added that this year’s budget proposal includes money to continue environmental and design work for the extensions beyond the Central Valley. “But it requires federal resources — not exclusively, but primarily,” he said.
The Infrastructure Bill at a Glance
A report by the California legislative analyst’s office notes that while the state’s legislature could decide to extend funding for the project — including a portion of cap-and-trade revenues through 2030 — it’s unclear where the money will come from to build beyond the Central Valley segment.
Experts say that the fragmented nature of transportation planning in the country has made the federal government hesitant to bet big on new projects rather than on fixing existing systems. That’s layered over a national political environment in which the appearance of California boosterism can be a liability, even for Democrats like the president.
California’s high-speed rail will “get some federal funding now that there’s a Democratic administration in place and the infrastructure bill is done,” said Jeff Davis, a senior fellow with the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan research organization. “But the federal government is not in the business of creating massive infrastructure programs that disproportionately benefit one state.”
Mr. Davis estimated that of a $36 billion “mother lode” of money in the infrastructure law for states with intercity passenger rail, more than half will go to the Northeast, leaving what’s left to be divvied up among projects in other states. He said that if California’s project also competes for funding from smaller pots of money in the law, like one designated for rail safety, California could get $4 billion or $5 billion — “maybe.”
Still, proponents say that the idea of scraping together as much as $105 billion should be stacked against the costs of expanding highways and air service an equivalent amount. The rail authority recently put that number at close to $200 billion, not including the escalating costs of dealing with climate change, like fighting wildfires.
In states such as Texas and Florida, private businesses have attempted to capitalize on the need for faster, greener rail systems in the United States.
But nothing approaches the magnitude of the California plan. Longtime supporters like former Gov. Jerry Brown describe high-speed rail as by far the best climate-friendly transportation option. They point with frustration and embarrassment to successes in countries around the globe — particularly China, which has built more than 20,000 miles of high-speed rail in about two decades.
For Brian P. Kelly, who took over as chief executive of the rail authority in early 2018, the only way to get the project done is to trudge forward, whatever the political weather.
He rattled off his tasks ahead as if he were describing a day of errands: Get trains running on the 170-mile Central Valley section. (Mr. Kelly said he expects that to happen by the end of the decade.) Continue with preparations for the extensions and finish improvements on either end of the line. Then find the money to build the rest.
In the meantime, the Central Valley — the implied “nowhere” when critics deride the project as “a train to nowhere” — is changing rapidly. The region’s major industries, like farming, are facing generational shifts. And families priced out of coastal cities are arriving in pursuit of relatively affordable housing, driving up costs and pushing out poorer residents as part of an increasingly familiar cycle.
The train was always going to have to pass through the Central Valley. So while some local leaders have over the years vocally opposed the project, many believe the region should grab the opportunities the train could bring.
“We’re teetering on the edge,” said Ashley Swearengin, a former mayor of Fresno who now leads the Central Valley Community Foundation. “We could get it right.”