California bullet train
A rendering of the California bullet train. Courtesy California High-Speed Rail Authority

Is this the end of the line for California’s misbegotten bullet train project?

A bipartisan majority of the state Assembly, including Speaker Anthony Rendon, is sponsoring a resolution that directs the High-Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) to delay final contracts for the initial segment of the bullet train in the San Joaquin Valley until the Legislature appropriates $4.2 billion in state bonds.

On its merits, that’s entirely logical. Why would the state commit to billions of dollars for land acquisition and construction without having the money in hand? It doesn’t do that for other public works, nor should it.

However, in the context of rising legislative opposition to the project and sentiment for shifting the remaining bond funds to commuter transit projects in major urban areas, such a delay could be the beginning of the end.

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Construction on the San Joaquin Valley segment’s roadbed, roughly from Chowchilla to an orchard north of Bakersfield, has been underway for several years, using a mixture of state and federal funds. After becoming governor in 2019, Gavin Newsom publicly disparaged the bullet train’s viability, but quickly retreated and proposed to extend the current segment northward to Merced and southward to Bakersfield, adding several billion dollars to the projected cost.

The HSRA wants to begin acquiring land for the extensions on both ends and award contracts for track, electrification and other major components.

“The only remaining opportunity for the Legislature to weigh in on the direction of the high-speed rail project occurs when (HSRA) asks us for the remaining $4.2 billion in bond funds,” one of the project’s chief critics, Assemblyman Jim Frazier, a Democrat from Discovery Bay, said in a statement.

“We cannot allow HSRA, or any department, to enter into contracts that bind the Legislature’s approval of future appropriations,” Frazier continued. “The Legislature’s role in approving the budget must be respected before key decisions on the state’s largest infrastructure project are made.”

Frazier chairs the Assembly Transportation Committee and has staged critical hearings on the HSRA’s latest business plan, which has also drawn criticism from the Legislature’s budget analyst, Gabe Petek.

Not only did Newsom throw cold water on prospects for a statewide bullet train system — a project much beloved by predecessor Jerry Brown — but Speaker Rendon has openly called for redirecting remaining funds into commuter transit.

“It is important to make sure that the High-Speed Rail Authority does not close the door to options other than the one created by a small handful of bureaucrats and the unelected authority board,” Rendon said in a statement. “The voters have been given no voice since 2008, and their elected representative, the Legislature, has had no vote since 2012.”

Another complicating factor is a sharp decline in revenues from the state’s cap-and-trade system of allocating allowances for greenhouse gas emissions. Brown and the Legislature agreed to give the project 25% of funds from quarterly auctions of emission allowances and that provided hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

The most recent auction, however, generated just $25 million and the future of cap-and-trade is uncertain unless it’s changed to compel industrial emitters to pay more. Legislators are discussing whether to give the California Air Resources Board authority to retool the program, the subject of a high-stakes political battle a couple of years ago.

Years of land acquisition and construction delays, ever-escalating costs and the abject lack of a clear public benefit have eroded political support for the bullet train and the new Assembly resolution indicates that it finally could be doomed — justifiably so.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.