High-Speed Rail

Kamala Harris Helped Secure Federal Funding for California's Disastrous High Speed Rail Project

The California senator's terrible record on policy extends to infrastructure.


Faye Sadou/SIPA/Newscom

On Monday, Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) announced her intention to run for president in 2020. The announcement spurred celebration from supporters of the former prosecutor, as well as a fair bit of criticism from those who remember her record of protecting dirty prosecutors and cracking down on sex work. Harriss's successful effort to secure federal funding for California's disastrous highspeed rail project has received less attention. Let's fix that.

Prior to being elected to the Senate in 2016, Harris had expressed only qualified support for California's highspeed rail project, saying that, while she was in favor of it "as part of a broader strategy to invest in our future," she still wanted it closely monitored for "cost overruns and delays."

But since taking office, she has changed her tune, saying "infrastructure spending isn't a transportation issue for most Americans—it's a human rights issue."

That framing earned her a lot of derision on social media, but in the Senate—arguably a more important forum—her views earned her a spot on the Environment and Public Works Committee, a position Harris has since used to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for highspeed rail through the Caltrain Electrification Project.

The Caltrain Electrification Project is a long-running $1.9 billion attempt to upgrade commuter rail infrastructure in the Silicon Valley. Though technically a separate project from the California highspeed rail, the upgrades that it would install would also allow highspeed rail trains to make use of those same commuter tracks.

In the waning days of the Obama administration, the Federal Transit Administration gave tentative approval to $647 million in federal grants for Caltrain Electrification, but the election of Donald Trump—who brought with him a decidedly less rail-friendly agenda—cast uncertainty on the project's funding.

California's Republican congressional delegation sought to capitalize on Trump's skepticism by sending a letter to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, in which they drew an explicit link between Caltrain electrification and highspeed rail, asking her to deny final approval for federal funding.

According to Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation analyst with the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit which publishes this website, that should have been the end of it.

"Typically when one party or the other of representatives from the state is totally opposed to something, that something doesn't get funded," he says.

Given her commitment to every human being's right to receive millions in transportation grants, however, Harris could not let the issue die.

In her own letter to Chao, signed by the rest of California's Democratic congressional delegation, Harris pleaded with the Secretary to approve a final grant agreement for Caltrain Electrification.

Then, when Chao appeared before the Environment and Public Works Committee, Harris—in what was by all accounts a testy exchange—pressed Chao on the highspeed rail funding she so desired.

"I would urge your department, under your leadership, to help us resolve this…Because again, we are talking about thousands of jobs and infrastructure concerns that California has around transportation," said the clearly aggravated senator.

When Chao proved noncommittal during questioning, Harris went on the offensive, issuing tweets and press releases demanding that the Trump administration sign a grant agreement for this most crucial project.

In the end, her advocacy proved decisive. The Trump administration signed a Full Funding Grant Agreement for Caltrain Electrification one week later.

"It looks to me to be mostly a political decision," Feigenbaum said of the grant agreement. "I think it was a decision that it was just not worth the political risk for the Trump administration."

Harris herself was quick to claim credit, telling the San Francisco Chronicle that she thought her exchange with Chao helped persuade her to approve the grant.

As the Democratic primary race heats up, scrutiny of Harris' record on issues like criminal justice and free speech will no doubt increase. But it should never be forgotten that that the senator played a pivotal role in securing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for what is arguably the most wasteful and poorly conceived transportation project of the last decade.