California wins big as Biden administration doubles down on high-speed rail
The Golden State will benefit from $6 billion in new grants to provide connections in the Central Valley and between the Los Angeles suburbs and Las Vegas. An East Coast route is getting big money too.
The Biden administration is going all in on a privately run high-speed rail project that will connect Las Vegas to the Los Angeles area, while also putting big bets on California’s state-run bullet train and a quicker rail connection from Richmond, Virginia, to Raleigh, North Carolina.
All told, the administration is set to spend more than $7 billion on the ambitious passenger rail projects, a small but symbolically significant part of President Joe Biden’s signature 2021 infrastructure funding law. The grant awards come just a month after the administration outlined its plans for what it called an “unprecedented” $16 billion in improvements for the Northeast Corridor, the electrified Amtrak corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C.
The new awards, which have been informally announced by members of Congress and grant recipients, come even as some House Republicans held up federal spending bills because they wanted to slash funding for Amtrak, the federally subsidized passenger rail company, and block money from going to California’s rail project.
The news is especially big for California, where high-speed rail has long been a controversial issue. Now the Golden State is getting money for not one, but two, projects that will include trains traveling faster than they do anywhere else in the United States.
“Both Brightline West and California High Speed Rail are big,” said Rick Harnish, the executive director of the High Speed Rail Alliance, an advocacy group. “If we can get a high-speed line built and operating, then this becomes an American idea, not some foreign idea.”
California’s state-run project will receive nearly $3.1 billion in new federal grants, the largest it has received since the state’s voters kicked off the project with $10 billion in 2008. The money will be used for construction of a segment of the line in the Central Valley (which is already underway), along with the purchase of six electric trains, construction of a station in Fresno and design work. The new grants come on top of $227 million the California High-Speed Rail Authority already received this year for safety improvements and station upgrades.
“California is delivering on the first 220-mph, electric high-speed rail project in the nation,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, in a statement. “This show of support from the Biden-Harris Administration is a vote of confidence in today’s vision and comes at a critical turning point, providing the project new momentum.”
The goal of the public high-speed rail project is to eventually connect San Francisco to Los Angeles, but the initial service will start in the Central Valley, linking the cities of Bakersfield, Fresno and Merced. The plan is to then link those cities with existing services in the San Francisco Bay Area.
But even efforts to build the line through the relatively flat agricultural lands of the Central Valley proved tough in the early days of the project, as the state struggled to buy the land it needed and move existing utilities.
A private project to link Las Vegas to the outer suburbs of Los Angeles, though, could largely avoid those issues. The Brightline West project would run almost all of its track down an existing highway corridor in the desert west of the gaming and entertainment hub. The route also avoids many ground-level crossings of roads, an important feature because grade crossings for trains traveling more than 110 mph are generally considered unsafe. Brightline’s electric trains are expected to reach speeds of 186 mph, making the trip between Las Vegas and Rancho Cucamonga, California, in 2 hours and 10 minutes.
“We’re honored and humbled in the confidence President Biden, [Transportation] Secretary [Pete] Buttigieg, Senator [Jacky] Rosen and so many others have placed in Brightline’s vision to bring true high-speed rail to America,” said Wes Edens, the founder and chairman of Brightline, which also operates passenger trains between Orlando and Miami in Florida.
“This is a historic moment that will serve as a foundation for a new industry, and a remarkable project that will serve as the blueprint for how we can repeat this model throughout the country. We’re ready to get to work to bring our vision of American made, American built, world class, state-of-the-art high speed train travel to America,” he said.
The $3 billion that Brightline is receiving is short of the $3.75 billion the company requested. But the railroad already planned to finance the rest of the $12 billion project privately.
Harnish said Brightline is likely to be the first of the California high-speed projects to start operations. It has a simpler route than the Central Valley counterpart, plus Brightline has already secured its right-of-way and property for two stations, he noted.
Meanwhile, Virginia and North Carolina secured $1 billion for a new rail route between Richmond and Raleigh that is expected to reduce the travel time between two southern capitals by one hour. Both states have already moved to acquire parts of an abandoned freight rail line to make the direct connection, so they don’t have to use a more circuitous route currently used by Amtrak trains.
The connection also means that Raleigh passengers will have a more direct route to Washington, D.C., and one day, advocates hope, it could clear the way for an extension of the Northeast Corridor’s electric service into the South. Rail ridership in North Carolina and Virginia has boomed since the pandemic, as both states look to expand service by buying assets from freight railroads and increasing train frequency.
In the meantime, U.S. Sen. Thom Tills, a Republican from North Carolina, hailed the grant as a way to help local businesses.
“This $1 billion grant for North Carolina to make progress on the Raleigh to Richmond Rail Line is a big win for economic development in the region,” he said. “I’m proud this investment was made possible by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that I helped negotiate, write, and pass into law.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.