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Manchin Machinations Seem Promising for Bullet Train

9:55 AM PST on March 9, 2022

Amtrak’s newest HSR is capable of over 200 mph. But only with the right tracks and wire overhead for power. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Funding to the tune of $66 billion was allotted for Amtrak and other forms of passenger rail in the national infrastructure bill signed last year. It breaks down to some $40 billion the California High-Speed Rail Authority will compete for with other rail projects across the country. That's great news. The bad news was that a separate $10 billion package exclusively for real high-speed rail—as in the electrified, near 200 mph and faster variety—seemed to be a casualty in the breakdown in negotiations with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin over the companion "Build Back Better" bill.

However, word has it that a significantly slimmed-down version of that bill is still in play. Manchin is a long-time supporter of passenger rail and may be okay with the high-speed rail pot staying in it. And since California has the only true high-speed rail project under construction in the whole country, the state should be in a great position to apply for those funds.

Senator Joe Manchin II (D-W.Va). Image via Third Way
Senator Joe Manchin II (D-W.Va). Image via Third Way
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"Senator Manchin seems to be trying to salvage something from the BBB bill's demise last year," wrote advocate, retired politician, and San Jose's train station namesake, Rod Diridon, in an email blast.

"The White House, Senator Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi are all still in favor of passing something," a source close to the goings-on told Streetsblog. "This is all still in play."

As Streetsblog reported previously, the Authority is all but finished with necessary but onerous environmental review documents for segments between the Central Valley spine and San Francisco and between Los Angeles and Burbank. This was part of a years-long strategy to get the project as shovel-ready as possible for the next time a friendly administration got into the White House and the Democrats got control of the legislature, as happened last year. Meanwhile, the project is engaged in heavy construction and has substantially completed over 100 miles of right of way, bridges, and other preparatory elements in the Central Valley along the spine of the project.

With things in D.C. going relatively well, the biggest hurdles remain Southern California Assemblymembers Anthony Rendon and Laura Friedman and their fluid rationales for attempting to jam up $4.2 billion in state-level, voter-approved funding. They want to take this bond money, earmarked for the project from the Central Valley, and divert it to incremental improvements to Metrolink commuter rail in their region. Even though the governor included funding for such improvements in his proposed budget last year—and tied approval of HSR funding to its release— Rendon and Friedman still refused to approve the release of the high-speed rail funds. They have also tried to argue that the electrification of high-speed rail would be a waste of money—although if not electric, it won't actually run at high speeds.

Governor Gavin Newsom and Assemblymember Laura Friedman - photo via Twitter
Governor Gavin Newsom and Assemblymember Laura Friedman - photo via Twitter
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The delay in releasing the funds—which were intended for laying track and stringing wire—is helping jack up the costs of the high-speed rail program and making California less competitive against other states for federal funding, threatening the entire project. That's why, as Streetsblog's source said, less parochial politicians are ratcheting up the pressure on state legislators to release those funds.

"Negotiations on Gov. Newsom's budget are heating up and the project's detractors have launched another volley of attacks in local and national editorial pages in response," wrote Ezra R. Silk, Political Director, U.S. High-Speed Rail Coalition, in an email blast. He also pointed out that more than 7,300 labor jobs have been created by the project and that the carrying capacity of the state's under-construction high-speed rail system is the "equivalent of highway or aviation capacity that would cost nearly twice as much."

"Remember to encourage your California legislators to support the California HSR Authority's budget approval as recommended by the Governor. This is absolutely crucial to keep the project moving in the Central Valley and beyond and be in a position to compete for the new federal HSR funds," wrote Diridon about the state negotiations. As to the latest federal horse-trading, "Let's hope there's enough meat on these legislative bones to put together a decent compromise that includes the $10 billion for a shovel-ready high-speed rail project."

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