Signals may finally be turning green for high-speed rail in the US, thanks in part to USD 36bn in funding authorized by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and progress on two landmark western projects.
Both projects are vying for this year’s USD 4.5bn chunk of that funding that isn’t slated for projects in the Northeast Corridor, and both are reporting substantial progress. But sources see one of those proposals — Brightline West, connecting Los Angeles and Las Vegas — as the most important of the two, a lynchpin whose success could push other high speed rail projects off of the sidings on which many are parked and into actual development.
A sector advisor sees Brightline West as a “game-changer” if it is completed this decade. A lawyer active in the sector agrees that the successful completion of the high-speed link will encourage other projects to advance, and thinks it will come into operation in a couple of years. Brightline West has a goal of starting service on the 260-mile line in late 2027 or early 2028.
According to Infralogic data and reporting, progress on 15 live high-speed rail projects in the US has been slow to non-existent:
|Project||Status||Latest update||Date of last update|
|Bakersfield to Palmdale 80-Mile High-Speed Rail Project||Pre-Launch||The California High-Speed Rail Authority released the final environmental impact report||June 2021|
|Chicago - St. Louis High-Speed Rail Line||Pre-Launch||The Illinois General Assembly passed legislation to create a commission to plan for the project||June 2021|
|Colorado Front Range High Speed Passenger Rail P3||Pre-Launch||Colorado Gov. signed SB21-238 to create the Front Range Rail District||July 2021|
|Great Lakes Hyperloop||Pre-Launch||The developers of the project were preparing to launch a two-year environment impact study (EIS)||December 2020|
|San Francisco to San Jose HSR||Pre-Launch||California HSR released, for public review and comment, a Revised Draft Environmental Impact Report/Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement||July 2021|
|Pennsylvania Philadelphia-Pittsburgh Hyperloop||Pre-Launch||Technical studies still ongoing||March 2020|
|Fresno- Bakersfield HSR||Pre-Launch||The HSR authority remained in the preliminary stages of the project||July 2020|
|Xpress West HSR (Brightline SoCal to Las Vegas 2018 Relaunch)||Preferred Proponent||The funding mix was revealed||May 2023|
|Dugout Loop High Speed Transportation Project||Preferred Proponent||Los Angeles' engineering department was working on an environmental review||July 2020|
|Hyperloop One (Missouri)||Pre-Launch||Missouri Gov. Michael L. Parson signed a bill that would allow for a hyperloop system to be built||July 2020|
|Rocky Mountain Hyperloop (Virgin Hyperloop One)||Pre-Launch||Virgin Hyperloop One continued to analyze potential work sites and implementation||November 2019|
|Houston to Dallas HSR||Preferred Proponent||Seeking new investors after winning a court case||June 2022|
|Phoenix to Tucson HSR||Pre-Launch||There still has been no construction schedule established for the project and no funding plan has been put in place||March 2020|
|Oklahoma - South Texas Rail Extension||Pre-Launch||The project will not progress until it is cleared for Tier 2, which could take a minimum of five years||April 2020|
|Northeast Corridor HSR - Boston-Washington DC||Pre-Launch||Amtrak plans to reduce operations because of revenue loss caused by Covid-19.||September 2020|
The Biden Administration is more invested in pushing high-speed rail than previous administrations, including that of Barrack Obama, according to both sources. The administration’s plan for rail investment is similar to government plans for investment in road and airport projects, the advisor said.
“I just don't know why people in other countries ought to have better train service and more investment in high-speed train service than Americans do,” said Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of Transportation, in early 2021.
Biden’s government has extended several incentives for rail investments, including a USD 368m grant for rail improvements in June 2022, and a further USD 233m investment in intercity passenger rail in August 2022. The grant and investment were not specifically intended for high-speed rail, but reflect the administration’s focus on boosting the rail sector overall.
Of course, one risk of any plan reliant on government policy is a change in administration. For instance, the California High Speed Rail Project, which plans to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco, suffered a blow when the Trump Administration rescinded Department of Transportation grant funding for the initiative in 2019, threatening to stop the system dead in its tracks. The Biden Administration reversed course in 2021, restoring the USD 929m grant.
Changes in state administrations or policies can affect the projects as well. For example, in 2011, then-Florida governor and current US Senator Rick Scott rejected USD 2bn in federal funds for a Orlando-Tampa high speed rail project, according to the lawyer. One reason for state skepticism about high-speed rail projects are the delays so many proposals have faced, the advisor said.
Advocacy group the US High Speed Rail Association has a four-phase plan to implement high-speed rail connecting 23 states. How likely those projects are to occur remains to be seen.
The advisor and lawyer agree that significant progress on the Brightline West project, the California High Speed Rail project or even the Houston to Dallas high speed rail project could set precedents that would get those other projects moving.
The Brightline West and California projects are reporting steady progress. Nevada’s congressional delegation and some California US representatives are backing an application from Brightline West and the Nevada Department of Transportation for USD 3.75bn in federal funding for that project. Much of the project’s funding is expected to be provided by the private sector, but an injection of federal funds would certainly help the project that has been in the pipeline since 2005.
But the project is competing for federal funds with the California project, which has applied for USD 2.8bn of the same funds, according to a local news report.
To date, four separate USD 150m bonds have been issued to fund the Brightline project, according to Electronic Municipal Market Access, or EMMA. Brightline in December said it may issue another USD 200m in tax-free private activity bonds.
Station development progress was reported in October, when two local governments approved a property sale for land on which the station will be developed.
The 800-mile, 24 station California project reported utility relocations and rights of way secured on its 119-mile Central Valley segment and design work progress on other segments and stations, among other achievements, according to a February progress report.
The Texas project has experienced many delays, but may have turned a corner in June 2022 when developer Texas Central announced that it was seeking new investors after winning a court decision that will allow it to use eminent domain to assemble a route for the project.
The project plans to use technology similar to that used by the Japanese Tokaido Shinkansen high-speed rail system, operated by the Central Japan Railway Co. In fact, the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and Japanese Overseas Infrastructure Investment Corporation in 2018 extended a loan of up to USD 300m to the project. Other investors have included several Texas businesspersons, including some involved in company leadership. Delays are likely to continue, however, until equity investors are found for the project, according to the lawyer.
Other projects that are unlikely to be completed this decade, according to the lawyer, include the addition of a high-speed rail component to the Northeast Corridor connecting Boston to Washington, DC.
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