Federal Stimulus Package May Help Fund California High-Speed Rail

Photo: California's High-Speed Rail project could receive some funding from the federal economic stimulus package.
California High-Speed Rail Authority/Courtesy
California's High-Speed Rail project could receive some funding from the federal economic stimulus package.

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California's High-Speed Rail project could find a new funding source for preliminary construction-a portion of the $825 billion economic stimulus package proposed by Congress.

The U.S. Senate proposed appropriating $2 billion from the package for high-speed rail projects around the country, said Quentin Kopp, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Democrats in the House of Representatives unveiled the package on Jan. 15. It is a combination of spending and tax measures meant to increase economic activity to avoid a deeper downturn.

The package includes huge increases in federal spending on education and health care, temporary increases in unemployment benefits and funding for various public works projects, including $10 billion to support mass transit projects.

To qualify for the federal funds, projects must be "shovel ready"-ready to begin construction and able to create jobs quickly for the unemployed.

The bulk of the California High-Speed Rail project's construction would begin in 2011, according to officials-too late to qualify for federal funds.

"(President Barack) Obama wants to spend the money by mid-2010; 2011 would be a disappointment," said Bruce Cain, a UC Berkeley professor of political science.

However, some preliminary construction on the project could begin as early as fall 2009.

Officials plan to start building some of the rail's grade separations, which separate the rail from traffic, in six to 18 months, Kopp said.

The grade separations, which are expected to cost about $2 billion, have the best chance of being at least partially funded by the package, he said.

In November, California voters approved $10 billion in state bonds to fund the rail, which is planned to span from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

With a $55 ticket, riders could embark on a 188-minute journey to Southern California, relieving highway and air traffic congestion.

But the state funds cannot be spent on construction until matching federal, local and private funding is secured.

Rail officials eventually hope to receive federal funding from three other bills, including the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2007, which was passed by Congress in October and sets aside $1.5 billion for high-speed rail.

"We don't have all our eggs in the stimulus bill, which has the caveat of spending the money swiftly," Kopp said.

The rail, which could have an Oakland station but will not stop in Berkeley, is expected to cost about $40 billion and be completed by 2030.

Some advocates of high-speed rail expansion were disappointed that the package would set aside only $10 billion to fund mass transit programs, said UC Berkeley economics professor Raj Chetty. The package would allocate $30 billion for improving the country's roads and infrastructure.

Congress is basing their decisions partially on political expediency. It is easier to expand existing road improvement programs than to start entirely new projects, Chetty said.

"In the long run, more funding should be put toward mass transit, but right now we can't be too idealistic," he said.

According to Chetty, members of Congress must balance their desire to pump money quickly into the economy with the need to fix long-term transportation problems.

"If they try to accomplish both at once, they could end up accomplishing neither," Chetty said.


Contact Julie Strack at [email protected]

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