In Biden Plans, Construction Of High-Speed Rail Has Long Been Underway, Albeit Facing Delays And Cost Overruns.

By James Ward and Mark Olalde

Cutting a stark contrast to President Donald Trump, President-elect Joe Biden has put the battle against climate change as one of his top priorities. Key to that fight will be the transition to cleaner modes of transportation, an endeavor that will be firmly centered in California, where nearly 40 million people need to get around. During his campaign, Biden promised to transform transportation, “making it easier for mobility to be powered by electricity and clean fuels, including commuter trains, school and transit buses, ferries, and passenger vehicles.”

His proposals run parallel to California’s efforts, where work has already begun to address its largest source of planet-warming emissions. In 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed orders to phase out the sale of new internal combustion engine cars. Meanwhile, Construction Of High-Speed Rail Has Long Been Underway, Albeit Facing Delays And Cost Overruns.

In his plans, Biden pledged to build a nationwide network of electric vehicle charging stations, invest in battery research, electrify the rail system and expand high-speed rail across the country, including in California.

“There are real prospects for a bipartisan, broad infrastructure program,” John Porcari, a member of Biden’s transition team on transportation issues and a former deputy secretary of transportation, told the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials in November. “President-elect Biden has long favored infrastructure programs. It’s in his bones. You certainly have a willing partner in the president-elect.”

But many Republicans — both in state and federal offices — have come out in opposition to Biden’s and other Democrats’ ideas, especially high-speed rail. A line from San Francisco to Los Angeles would cost $80 billion, according to a California Legislative Analyst’s Office analysis. Currently, a $20 billion, 119-mile section of the project is under construction between Merced and Bakersfield in central California. The state analysis estimated the funding gap to finish the project is $60 billion.

“I am absolutely opposed to the high-speed rail project. It’s costing more than we were promised and would tear up perfectly good farmland in our district,” said California Assemblymember Devon Mathis, a Republican in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley. “We need to focus that money on repairing our aging infrastructure, bettering our water transport methods, building water storage facilities, and repairing our roads and bridges. We don’t need another wasteful project that will drag us deeper into debt.” Still, if Biden is able to move forward with his plans, their success will likely hinge on the Golden State, which has already started down the road to cleaner transportation.

‘A second railroad revolution’

A Biden administration would likely invest heavily both in high-speed and traditional passenger rail. His campaign website boasts that the president-elect, who famously commuted from his home in Delaware to Capitol Hill by Amtrak, would “spark the second great railroad revolution.”

“A 21st-century passenger rail system that connects people across our nation is essential to our competitiveness, to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and to giving more Americans the freedom and flexibility to travel,” Biden said. As vice president, he backed the high-speed rail component of the 2009 stimulus package, noted Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association.

A portion of that federal economic stimulus plan — $3.5 billion — boosted California’s high-speed rail project aimed at connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles that was passed by voters in 2008. Twelve years later, the project has yielded a little more than 100 miles of track and improvements to related rail projects in the Central Valley between Bakersfield and Merced, said Brian Kelly, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. In the interim, though, the project faced myriad lawsuits and, over the last four years, opposition from the Trump administration.

Kelly described his organization’s relationship with the Trump Administration as “dysfunctional” and expected more cooperation with Washington when Biden takes office. “Just removing some of the federal roadblocks we’ve encountered will be a welcome change,” he said. This applies to everything from releasing $929 million in promised funding to smoothing federal construction regulations revolving around the project, he said.

Critics such as the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation — both of which question the scientific consensus surrounding human-induced climate change — dislike high-speed rail. They say California’s plan and other proposed high-speed rail projects underway in Texas and Florida are too expensive, take up too much land, will lose money and rely on outdated technology. Still, the project has created 5,000 jobs in California and will continue generating employment as more rail line is constructed, according to Kelly.

By 2029, the first leg of the California high-speed rail system is supposed to connect Bakersfield at the south end of the Central Valley to Merced in the heart of the state, Kelly said. The trip between the two cities, which now takes two and a half hours by car, will take 80 minutes by train. According to a 2019 analysis by the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the completed system could run 12 trains and 7,560 passengers per hour in each direction.

In the same 2019 analysis, it was estimated it would cost at least $122 billion in additional highway and airport construction to provide the same intrastate connectivity that high-speed rail would achieve between San Francisco and the Los Angeles Basin via the Central Valley. Kunz is confident that the Biden administration will boost funding for California’s bullet train project as the first step in a national plan — an idea that’s backed up by a series of infrastructure plans released during the campaign.

“As president, (Biden) will invest in high-speed rail. He’ll start by putting the (Amtrak-run) Northeast Corridor on higher speeds and shrinking the travel time from D.C. to New York by half – and build in conjunction with it a new, safer Hudson River Tunnel,” according to the campaign’s position paper. “He will make progress toward the completion of the California High-Speed Rail Project.” Like the Biden administration, Kunz also has big dreams for bullet trains zooming through more than just California. His organization advocates for $360 billion for such projects across the nation, including in Florida, Texas and the Chicago area.

The U.S. will need to play catch-up, however, as it’s far behind many parts of the world, Kunz said. Japan began building high-speed rail in the 1960s, while Europe followed in the 1980s and 1990s. Over the last decade, China surpassed everyone, constructing the world’s largest high-speed rail network, which stretches thousands of miles and moves passengers at speeds up to 217 mph.

But, America can make up for lost time, Kunz said. He points to a newly introduced bill in Congress that would invest $205 billion in high-speed rail and create at least 2.6 million American jobs over five years as the first step in the ambitious national plan. Included in the Biden transportation agenda are plans to electrify the rail system and move away from diesel-powered engines, as well.

Amtrak President and CEO Bill Flynn told USA TODAY the organization looks forward to working with Biden and Congress “to get the economy moving and help Amtrak and our employees through this unprecedented situation.”

Electric vehicles

While the widespread adoption of high-speed rail and electrified public transportation would represent environmentalists’ wildest dreams, American transportation remains dominated by cars. Perhaps nowhere is this better illustrated than in Southern California, famous for its gridlock in a state with more than 36 million registered vehicles.

As a result, the transition from cars and trucks powered by internal combustion engines to electric vehicles is key to Biden’s transportation plans and reflects Newsom’s own commitment to ban the sale of new fossil fuel-powered cars by 2035. On Jan. 5, the California governor proposed a budget that included $1.5 billion for zero-emissions vehicles, money that would go toward both the construction of electric vehicle charging stations as well as incentives for middle class earners to purchase such cars.

“Even with major investments in transit and planning, many Americans will still depend on their cars and trucks,” Biden’s team wrote in its federal infrastructure plan. “To reach net-zero emissions, we have to make it much easier for them to own and use electric vehicles.”

In the plan, Biden pledged to “work with Congress, the private sector, labor unions, mayors and governors to build a national electric charging system of 500,000 public charging outlets.” This would represent a huge increase in the network, as there were fewer than 30,000 across the country as of March 2020, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Energy. California had the second-most per capita, trailing only Vermont but far outstripping any other large state. For years, the limited range of electric vehicles has been one of several impediments to their adoption, and Biden set a goal to have a nationwide infrastructure of charging stations built by 2030.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s most recent annual statistics, published in December, as much as 80% of electric vehicle charging is done at home. This means, according to the DOT, that “public charging is important to the development of the plug-in electric vehicle market” and that widespread availability of fast-charging stations will up cars’ range, “greatly increasing the value of a (battery electric vehicle) to current and potential owners.”

Additionally, Biden pledged to further address the demand side of the electric vehicle market by restoring the electric vehicle tax credit, targeting middle-class earners with incentives and investing $5 billion in battery research to further drop costs. According to the DOT, the sale of various types of electric vehicles jumped from nearly zero in 2000 to more than 700,000 in 2019, with factors including cheaper batteries “helping to fuel consumer demand.”

Still, battery-electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles together account for less than half a percent of vehicles crisscrossing American highways, DOT data show. By the time of publication, Biden’s team had not responded to questions regarding how he planned to fund half a million charging stations nor how tax incentives would prioritize the middle class over the highest earners, as they’ve traditionally done.

Biden’s plans and California’s mandates aligned on the need to phase out diesel-powered shipping. California has adopted a rule to move toward zero-emission trucks by 2045, while Biden’s plan targeted everything from trucking to shipping to buses as needing to shift to lower-emissions vehicles, although details in his transition plans were scarce.

Even before taking office, Biden’s election victory had an immediate impact on the shift toward cleaner cars, especially in the Golden State. California and the Trump administration have been locked in legal battles over the state’s ability to set fuel efficiency standards that are more stringent than the federal government’s and over Trump’s rollbacks of Obama-era rules on fuel efficiency. After the election, both General Motors and Nissan pulled out of a coalition challenging the Clean Air Act waiver that allowed California to set its own benchmarks.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra sent a letter in November to environmental leaders laying out the company’s reasoning. “We are confident that the Biden Administration, California, and the U.S. auto industry, which supports 10.3 million jobs, can collaboratively find the pathway that will deliver an all-electric future,” she wrote. In addition to the tens of millions of cars in California, more than a dozen states had also adopted California’s stricter rules, meaning the outcome of the battle will have ripple effects across the country.

And, should his nomination be confirmed by the Senate, California Attorney Xavier Becerra will join Biden’s cabinet as the secretary of health and human services. While this role isn’t focused on the environment, Becerra has been the state’s top lawyer in its lawsuits against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s actions under Trump, and he will have Biden’s ear. Becerra previously told USA TODAY that he expected Biden to reverse course on these lawsuits.

Biden’s transition plans don’t explicitly state whether he will instruct the EPA to flip positions on its fights with California, including reauthorizing the state’s Clean Air Act wavier, but those moves are expected. “A new administration could obviously change their position in litigation, and it’s not uncommon that that happens,” added Mike Landis, an attorney with Public Interest Network and Environment America.

In addition to stepping away from the fight over California’s waiver, General Motors partnered with the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank, to release a report in January that found switching ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft to electric vehicles would come with a massive environmental and public health benefit. But, to make this switch, the government would need to step in to push the construction of charging stations and lower the cost barrier to purchasing these cars, they said.

This news was originally published at Visalia Times Delta.