• Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

President Biden's jobs plan could help California's high-speed rail project

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Officials in California are hoping to benefit from President Biden's multi-trillion dollar infrastructure plan. In 2008, voters approved a $10 billion bond measure for a high-speed rail project. The goal is to connect the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles via rail. But costs for the project have ballooned, support has dwindled, and many are questioning if the full line will ever be completed. Debra Kahn, California bureau chief at Politico, joined CBSN's Lana Zak to discuss.

Video Transcript

LANA ZAK: Officials in California are hoping to benefit from President Biden's multitrillion dollar infrastructure plan. In 2008, voters approved a $10 billion bond measure for a high-speed rail project. The goal is to connect the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles via rail. The trip would take less than three hours.

But costs for the project have ballooned, support has dwindled, and many are questioning if the full line will ever be completed. And now, officials with California High-Speed Rail are hoping that they can compete for billions of dollars the president's proposal. Debra Kahn is a California Bureau chief for Politico, and she reports on this issue, and joins me now.

Hi there, Debra. I'm hoping you can provide us with a bit of context. What are some of the factors that have hindered this project? And where do things currently stand?

DEBRA KAHN: Yeah so this high-speed rail project has been under consideration in California for decades, since the '90s. And so it first got funding in 2008. It was supposed to connect LA and San Francisco under three hours by 2030, and then eventually San Diego and Sacramento, further south and north after that.

Since then, there have been kind of the various delays that you generally get when you're doing a big infrastructure project like this. There have been a ton of lawsuits. There's been cost overruns and delays, and now the pandemic. And then, just a basic lack of long term funding is the main issue.

And so now, the goal is 171 miles between Bakersfield and Merced, which is in the Central Valley, by 2029. So that'll be the first place they plan to start actual service. And then, they're also working on projects concurrently in Los Angeles, in the Bay Area, on stations that will eventually connect. So that's-- so that's where it currently stands.

LANA ZAK: So you heard me say that officials with California High-Speed rail are hoping that President Biden's infrastructure plan might give them some much needed financial support. Do we know how the Biden administration feels about this project? Is it something that the president or Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg have expressed support for?

DEBRA KAHN: Well, in general, one would think that the Biden administration would be a big backer of this project. The Obama administration supported it. And, you know, Biden's a big rail fan. So we-- but we don't know exactly where they are. They have been kind of circumspect on it so far.

The administration hasn't said a ton about funding it through his infrastructure package, which is, you know, huge, $2.3 billion. Pete Buttigieg has said it could potentially be supported. That's about all he said. And, you know, that could be because they know Republicans will criticize it, you know, as they did last week at a House hearing on high-speed rail.

But the high-speed rail authority itself says that they see about $70 billion in Biden's plan that they could compete for. So they're very optimistic, you know, they're hanging their hopes on the word "potentially" from Buttigieg at this point. So that's-- that's kind of where it stands.

LANA ZAK: I'm wondering, you mentioned that President Obama had supported it. We also know that President Trump didn't and actually tried to claw back some of that money. It has been a political issue for the last several years. Can you explain why?

DEBRA KAHN: Yeah so it eventually-- I mean, it originally started with bipartisan support Arnold Schwarzenegger supported it when he was governor. Even-- even House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy supported in some format when he was in the State Assembly.

The shift to it being a kind of straightforward partisan political football happened around 2010 when the Obama administration gave it a few billion dollars in stimulus funding. And that made it kind of more of a Democratic project, and more of a target for Republicans.

And then, that was kind of exacerbated in 2019 when Governor Gavin Newsom gave a state of the state speech where he said there isn't a path to completing the full project right now. And that's what led to the Trump administration trying to take back about $1 billion of federal funding.

So at the least, California does expect that the Biden administration will reverse that, will say, you can have the money and we'll give them an extension to the current deadline to finish work in the Central Valley. So that's kind of how it's evolved into a project whose fortunes flip back and forth with administrations.

LANA ZAK: And Debra, in your reporting, you also say that the current price tag for the project is roughly $80 to $100 billion. Even if the president's infrastructure bill is passed and the project receives funding, is that enough to actually complete it?

DEBRA KAHN: Probably not. It would have to get a huge chunk of money. People estimate that it would need about $14 billion to even get out of the Central Valley and go north, let alone south. So it's kind of in the eye of the beholder, right now, what it needs.

You know, people I've talked to, some have given up hope completely that it will ever be done. And some say it can be completed, it just needs a study in state funding source, which has kind of been the issue since the beginning. It doesn't have a steady federal funding source unlike roads and airports, and other kinds of transportation infrastructure.

It had some one time funding from the state, and it has kind of a trickle of funding every year, but that's it. So in order to get more long term funding, it's going to need to win over people that originally supported it but have since become skeptics or critics, and that's going to be kind of tricky.

LANA ZAK: OK. Debra Kahn, thank you so much.