When President Obama signed the stimulus spending package in 2009 in an effort to revive the recession-slowed economy, high-speed-rail projects were a big winner. Congress appropriated $10 billion to build new bullet train corridors and to upgrade existing rail lines to accommodate faster trains. The goal was to build a modern, energy-efficient rail system that would alleviate pressure on highways and airports, while also creating jobs for people constructing the lines and manufacturing the trains.
Job creation was so critical to the program that federal lawmakers not only included existing Buy American Act mandates in the law, they boosted them, requiring that 100 percent of the components of the train systems be built in the U.S. to help spur the creation of a domestic manufacturing industry.
But now the California High Speed Rail Authority, which received the single largest grant from the program, has asked the Federal Railroad Administration to exempt the bullet train from the Buy American Act. The authority argues that to ensure the safety and reliability of the trains, the agency needs to be able to build certain train parts — including the wheels, brakes, derailment mitigation devices, undercarriages, motors and even the car body shells — in established manufacturing facilities with experienced personnel, none of which currently exists in the U.S.
Of course, such a request undermines the purpose of the stimulus package. It also whittles away at one of biggest selling points of the high-speed-rail project — that it will create quality jobs and lasting economic benefit.
And yet some kind of waiver may be necessary. For now. Obama’s plan to build a high-speed-rail network has stalled. The Republican-controlled Congress has expressed little interest in continuing to fund new high-speed-rail corridors, and has declared its outright opposition to California’s project. Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio have canceled planned projects in their states.
In other words, there’s no pipeline of projects moving forward to fuel a domestic rail car manufacturing industry. The major makers of high-speed rail systems are all foreign-based.
The reality is that the “Buy American” requirements won’t drive the creation of permanent jobs in the rail manufacturing industry. Nor will one high-speed-rail project alone. Sustained funding and investment in rail infrastructure — both high-speed and commuter rail — will. On Election Day, voters approved nearly $200 billion of local ballot measures or public transit projects, showing there is still a tremendous desire to invest in modern transportation systems. President-elect Donald Trump has talked about rebuilding the country’s infrastructure; he has railed against the nation’s sluggish rail lines and has praised China’s high-speed systems. Will that translate into a renewed vision for high-speed rail that will support permanent jobs? Let’s hope so.
In the meantime, if the authority is granted a waiver, it should still aim to generate the maximum number of jobs domestically. Advocates have been pushing the authority to give greater consideration during the bidding process to manufacturers that promise to create the most high-quality jobs in the U.S. That’s a sensible compromise.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE LOS ANGELES TIMES