“failure remains a real possibility”

As the Biden administration and congressional leaders try to vie for votes for a massive infrastructure plan, a senior California official has a word of warning about the most ambitious proposal: high-speed rail .

California State Treasurer Fiona Ma has warned leaders of the House and Senate Transportation Committees not to engage in repeated efforts undertaken by the Obama administration and avoid bulky operations dominated by the government such as the Golden State high-speed rail project.

In a letter sent to committees on Monday, Ma embarked on a two-state narrative — Florida and California — to highlight degrees of success and failure in the fight against high-speed rail.

The letter was first reported by Politico.

Florida, which launched the Brightline rail line — a largely privately funded intercity high-speed rail line between Miami and West Palm Beach — in 2018 took just six years to build.

Brightline, which is currently working on a route between Victorville and Las Vegas in the west, used pre-existing rights-of-way as well as construction along Florida’s existing freeways to cut costs.

“[M]Meanwhile, our trains in California have yet to leave the station after waiting twice as long,” Ma said in his letter.

Ma noted that regardless of the political will to spend billions on an ambitious project such as nationwide high-speed trains, the realities are far more difficult.

“Although the sky seems to be the limit in terms of how much Congress is willing to spend, I’m afraid failure remains a real possibility,” Ma wrote. “Tens of billions may seem like a lot of money, but we know from our experience in California that the actual construction ends up costing multitudes more than expected.”

She pointed to the Obama administration’s issuance of $10.5 billion in funds for high-speed rail projects that brought no ridership to new rail lines a decade later.

“To be clear, a repeated effort that spends billions without making new lines operational after another decade will be the death of high-speed rail in America,” Ma wrote.

“There’s just no way the public will continue to support such a program without seeing tangible results – and after two hugely expensive bites of the apple, could you really blame them?”

In her letter, she said she pressed congressional leaders to consider public-private partnerships (such as Brightline) as better avenues for achieving working high-speed trains, allowing projects to use government grants to pay credit risk premia for federal rail loans to lower the barrier to entry in obtaining financing (while billions of rail loan funds sit idle), and triple the volume cap on bonds of private activity to enable private actors to access greater capital to carry out projects.

Jose P. Rogers