National News

Can a New Leader Deliver High-Speed Rail?

Posted January 18, 2018 10:48 a.m. EST

Brian P. Kelly, the head of California’s State Transportation Agency, was appointed this week to run the state’s High-Speed Rail Authority, the organization charged with overseeing construction of what would be America’s first high-speed train system. This week a consultant to the authority reported that the cost of the first segment under construction, a 119-mile span in the Central Valley, has risen to $84 million per mile from $66 million per mile.

Kelly spoke to us Wednesday. (Our chat has been edited and condensed below.)

Q: You’re going from what appeared to be a secure and prominent role at the State Transportation Agency to the head of an organization that faces a lot skepticism from the general public and fierce opposition from Republicans. Why did you take the job?

A: In 23 years of doing transportation policy in California I have never seen a single project that would have such a transformative impact as this one. You are right. This project has mammoth opposition. I’d rather get in the fight then stand on the sidelines.

Q: The High-Speed Rail Authority was established 23 years ago. During that time China has built 16,000 miles of high-speed rail. We are still working on the first 119 miles. What are we doing wrong?

A: It’s not that we’re doing it wrong. To be fair, the voters of the state of California did not pass a bond bill dedicating any money until 2008. We are in a position today where there is enough dedicated for the project. We have construction underway.

Q: Can you look California in the eye and tell us that this train is going to leave the station some day?

A: I can look Californians in the eye and certainly say that that is what I am fully committed to delivering. They will get a full and credible report and plan from us on how we are going to move forward. I think the path forward is going to be less tumultuous.

Q: When will we be able to ride this train?

A: Some of this is what we are now reviewing. There’s a full commitment to have the first stretch to be all the way to Bakersfield and coming into the Bay Area.

Q: Will that stretch open in 2025 as planned?

A: That’s what we are going to be evaluating with the new cost issues.