In-Depth: Federal infrastructure bill could accelerate California's biggest rail projects

Money could benefit high-speed rail, Surfliner
Posted at 7:16 PM, Nov 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-16 22:17:44-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- Transit officials are hopeful the newly signed federal infrastructure package will vastly accelerate passenger rail projects in San Diego County and the state’s high-speed bullet train, but the precise amount of financial impact will remain a mystery for some time.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal signed by President Joe Biden on Monday sets aside $66 billion for new rail funding. It specifically designates about $30 billion of that funding for projects along the busy corridor linking Washington and New York, but there are no earmarks for California.

That means California’s rail system will have to compete for grants with other projects across the country, said Rick Harnish of the High Speed Rail Alliance. “The people with the best applications have the most opportunity to get the most money,” he said.

In San Diego, federal funding could be critical in the longstanding effort to relocate a section of track through Del Mar. Bluff collapses and erosion are slowly threatening a section of tracks used by the Pacific Surfliner.

SANDAG has repeatedly shored up the crumbling bluffs, but moving the tracks farther inland is projected to cost at least $3 billion and take 10 years.

“We have to get those trains off the bluffs. It’s going to be dangerous for us to leave them there,” said Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego). “While we’re doing that, we should take pains to get good rail service that’s closer to 1 to 2 hours, rather than 2 to 3 hours from San Diego to Los Angeles.”

Officials with California’s long-planned high-speed train also have high hopes for federal funding. Construction is currently underway on a 119-mile section of track in the Central Valley.

“We see several potential funding opportunities within the bill, to the tune of billions of dollars,” said California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) spokesman Micah Flores.

The voter-approved project already has enough funding allocated to complete a section of track from Bakersfield to Merced by the end of this decade, Flores said, but additional federal monies could go a long way towards funding future segments. The project will eventually connect Los Angeles with San Francisco.

A White House summary lists $12 billion of the $66 billion for “intercity rail service, including high-speed rail.” However, Flores said CHSRA has identified several other programs in the bill that the high-speed rail project could compete for, totaling more than $50 billion.

“California wouldn’t get all these funds, but given that we are the only high-speed rail project currently under construction [in the U.S.], we believe we can get some of this grant funding,” he said.

The companion Build Back Better bill could provide even more funding for California’s bullet train. That legislation, still pending in Congress, contains $10-billion for high-speed rail.

San Diego will also need to compete for money to move the tracks in Del Mar. The federal government rarely pays for 100 percent of a project, so experts say the region will need partial funding of its own to make its application competitive.

That’s one of the reasons local transit officials are pushing for a half-cent sales tax increase on next November’s ballot.