Federal Funding for California High Speed Train Falls Far Short of Rail Authority Expectations

On Thursday, President Obama announced the states’ shares of the $8 billion in federal stimulus money allotted for high speed rail. California had applied for $4.7 billion but received less than half that amount, with the bulk of the funding going to thirty other states. The California High Speed Rail Authority’s new Business Plan, which was widely criticized both in economic circles and within the Legislature earlier this month, relied on receiving the full amount requested, plus getting another $14 billion in federal aide over the next several years to fully fund the state’s high speed rail project. The President has only committed to $1 billion annually to fund all 31 projects nationwide, dashing the Authority’s hopes for massive federal subsidies and leaving a gapping hole in the funding plan.

This tough news raises three critical questions: First, if the project had a more robust business plan, including realistic cost forecasts and ridership data, would California have faired better? Second, if the Authority had not included the highly-contentious Bay Area route in its federal proposal, would we have received more funding? (That section of the project lacks a certified environmental document, making it unlikely to be completed in time to meet the stimulus deadlines.) Third, since the Authority admits that they weren’t planning for a smaller amount of federal aide, what now?

We hope that this reality check causes the Authority to re-think how it does business, coming up with a realistic plan that addresses a range of funding scenarios. And with less federal money available than hoped for, it’s time to concentrate our investments on one or two segments that can actually be completed by the federal deadlines, instead of spreading the money so thin that we end up with a handful of “tracks to nowhere.” The voters asked for a high speed train in 2008. To deliver, the Authority must do better in 2010.