Can America Still Build Big? A California Rail Project Raises Doubts

Can America Still Build Big? A California Rail Project Raises Doubts

FRESNO, Calif. — In a neighborhood littered with derelict warehouses, Miguel Arias pointed to a wide strip of dirt where California’s high-speed rail, one of America’s most ambitious and divisive infrastructure projects, has been taking shape.

The son of Mexican farmworkers and a newly elected member to the City Council in this sprawling Central Valley city, Mr. Arias is hoping the train will deliver to Fresno the California dream that long ago bypassed the impoverished region.

“We’ve been feeding the nation for decades and now we have a chance to feed ourselves,” Mr. Arias said. “This will be the first step into the middle class.”

But California’s newly installed governor, Gavin Newsom, in his first major address to lawmakers this month, sent the project into disarray. The governor announced that the project, which was expected to connect the Central Valley to Silicon Valley, would be dramatically scaled back because of exorbitant costs.

For now, the train would begin and end in the Central Valley, the governor said, making no mention of a connection to the coast, where most of the region’s people — and opportunities — reside.

Mr. Newsom has since sought to walk back his remarks. But the portion of the rail line to Silicon Valley is still underfunded by at least $9 billion, and the governor’s comments have prompted deeper questions about America’s ability to think big and work together on complex public works projects, an area that seemed to have bipartisan support during the last presidential election before it was perennially deferred.

If anything, the confusion and recriminations over high-speed rail seem to show that the nation’s partisan divide extends to infrastructure. Mr. Newsom’s speech led to a spirited Twitter exchange with President Trump, which then devolved into a much more serious — and for California a potentially financially calamitous — dispute over funding. The Trump administration has canceled or is trying to claw back as much as $3.5 billion in federal allocations from California.

For Mr. Newsom, who has been governor less than two months, the rail episode was a searing introduction to the combative national political scene in the Trump era. The California media called the governor’s position incomprehensible, critics called the project a train to nowhere and a cartoon mockingly portrayed a high-speed train full of cows.

“He pretty much killed the project with that speech,” said Ray LaHood, who served as transportation secretary in the Obama administration. “I was shocked. It was very shortsighted and no vision for rail.”

Although California’s project has gotten the most attention, other states are considering high-speed rail projects. Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington has proposed an international high-speed line that would connect Vancouver to Seattle and Portland. Private investors are pushing for a train that would link Dallas to Houston. But no other project is further along than California’s.

Mr. Newsom campaigned on a vow to tackle the state’s extreme inequality. But his high-speed rail position seemed, if anything, to highlight that California’s new divide is between east and west, more than north and south.

Of any state in the union, California might seem best positioned to carry out big infrastructure projects: Flush with revenues, the state is controlled by a single political party, and its citizens regularly vote to raise their own taxes for a variety of projects and government services.

“California built the world’s greatest water conveyance system, one of the great highway systems, a great university system,” said Dan Richard, who stepped down as chairman of the rail project’s board of directors on Tuesday. “When did we lose our confidence in our ability to do this stuff?”

Even before Mr. Newsom’s comments, the project was troubled by repeated delays and cost overruns. The overall cost, estimated at around $45 billion when financing was approved by voters a decade ago, has now swelled to as much as $98 billion.

California’s High-Speed Rail Authority, which is running the project, was established 23 years ago. During that time China has built 16,000 miles of high-speed rail.

The first phase of California’s project, 119 miles through the Central Valley, will not be completed until 2022.

Even if it does continue, the project is likely to face more legal challenges and opposition. Though surveys suggest it still has majority support, especially among younger voters, many in the state, particularly in Republican pockets, oppose it.

“I think high-speed rail is dead in California in this form,” said Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican who represents Bakersfield. “The governors’s own words rightfully acknowledged, this costs too much and has taken take too long.”

But the project also has some disinterested skeptics who say they are not convinced that it made economic sense in the first place.

“I am a huge fan of infrastructure investment for many many reasons,” said Lawrence H. Summers, who served as Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton. “But in the case of California high-speed rail, I am very skeptical as to whether the numbers work in terms of the benefits exceeding the cost.”

The places where high-speed rail has been most successful, Mr. Summers notes, in Asia and Europe, are more densely populated and therefore more conducive. America is a largely suburban nation where most commuters drive to work alone. “America is the land of sprawl,” he said.

The need for increased infrastructure investment has been one of America’s few remaining bipartisan issues, although left and right differ over whether public money or private money would finance it. President Barack Obama made reinvesting in roads, bridges and power plants a cornerstone of the 2009 economic stimulus package, and during the 2016 presidential campaign seemingly the only disagreement Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had on infrastructure was about which of their administrations would spend more on it. The issue unites truckers and train buffs, unions and Wall Street, economists from the left and right.

And yet, when it comes to spending the money — and actually getting things built — very little progress has been made. Following a brief spike during the recession, government investment has hovered around 3.3 percent of gross domestic product for the past few years, which is the lowest since the 1940s. In the meantime, roads, bridges and train tracks have gotten steadily older while proposals for new projects are delayed by political intransigence and legal delays.

America’s short-horizon election cycles, especially in the House of Representatives, are not in sync with the time it takes to build such massive projects, making them politically vulnerable.

In California, high-speed rail had been promoted by Republicans and Democrats alike for decades before the first shovel broke ground in 2015. It was Pete Wilson, a Republican governor, who in 1996 signed the legislation establishing the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Another Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, put the project’s financing on the ballot in 2008. Later, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, became the project’s biggest booster and funder. In the meantime, polls showed Republican support for the project eroding.

“There are so many obstacles to changing the status quo, and so many litigation opportunities at each stage, that we’re really looking at 20 years of consultants and lawyers and bureaucrats before these projects get started, and it’s almost impossible to maintain political and taxpayer support over that period,” said Jennifer Hernandez, a partner at Holland & Knight who leads the law firm’s West Coast environmental and land-use practice.

“The environmental process has become about litigation protection,” he said. “You’re going to get sued so you’ve got to go out and basically do process upon process, study upon study to make sure that somebody cannot find some toehold for litigation.”

Mr. Arias, the City Council member whose district is filled with homeless encampments, toxic landfills from old, shuttered factories and the stench of carcasses being rendered into tallow, sees high-speed rail as a social ladder for thousands of families, and a way for young people to connect with the thriving economy of the San Francisco Bay Area through jobs and education. It is also, he argues, an environmental salve that could reduce automobile traffic in a region of the state that suffers from serious air pollution.

Fresno ranks second among big cities in the nation, after Detroit, for concentrated poverty — poor residents living in extremely poor neighborhoods — according to the Brookings Institution.

“This is extremely personal,” Mr. Arias said as he drove his electric car through his district. “When people speak so critically of high-speed rail — calling it a boondoggle or whatever — they are not seeing the depressed neighborhoods every day that would benefit from it.”

“To take that away would be unconscionable,” he said.

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