A Modest Proposal: Give High-Speed Rail to Unhoused Californians

Combining Two Failed Golden State Projects Could Save Both. Right?

California shows little willingness to figure out how to house homeless people, or to build out its high-speed rail system. So columnist Joe Mathews has a modest proposal for the state. Image of supports for a viaduct to carry high-speed rail trains near Madera, California. Courtesy of AP Newsroom.

California is spending billions to house its increasing population of unhoused people. But it hasn’t come close to building enough to meet its ambitious goal of ending homelessness. And many Californians have lost hope that it ever will.

California is spending billions to construct a high-speed rail system. But it hasn’t come close to completing what would be the first such line in the nation. And many Californians have lost hope that it ever will.

In the face of these crises, what is to be done? One option would be to sit around and lament two massive failures of government, and conclude that mega-projects are just too challenging for our state.

Or we could steel ourselves and embrace the wisdom of Dwight Eisenhower—who famously said: “If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it.”

In that spirit, I suggest we solve the big problems of homeless housing and high-speed rail by combining them into something even larger.

So, I hereby propose—very modestly—Homeless High-Speed Rail.

You read that right. Finding permanent lodging for unhoused people, already declared the state’s top priority by Gov. Gavin Newsom, would become the new, urgent mission of our flagging high-speed rail authority.

Under Homeless High-Speed Rail, the state’s unhoused people would no longer have to live in cars or temporary shelters or controversial encampments. Instead, everyone would have the option to take a sleeping-car berth on a brand-new bullet train.

Sure, this fusion of housing and high-speed rail might create some new challenges. But it would solve even more problems.

To pick just one example: advocates and media have long criticized our state government for its confusing mix of competing homelessness initiatives. The state splits up housing funding among different local governments, who complain that the flow of money is not consistent enough to solve the crisis. The state’s official auditor, along with other experts, has called for consolidating state and local programs on homelessness.

Keeping homeless people constantly on the move sounds cruel, but it is already an established and popular policy across California.

My proposal does just that—by consolidating every single state and local program to house homeless people under one single state agency: the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Now, some cynics might look at that combination and call it crazy—a mere merger of two giant dysfunctional money pits. And they wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

The state has spent more than $20 billion on housing and homelessness since 2019but the number of unhoused Californians has grown by one-third. Meanwhile, the high-speed rail project has secured $25 billion—but is still as much as $10 billion short of the $35 billion required to complete its first segment, in the Central Valley. Both projects will require tens of billions of dollars in additional funding to achieve their goals.

But what cynics are missing, amid all the red ink, is how these two failing programs, in combination, could save each other money.

Building homeless housing is incredibly expensive—Los Angeles is paying more than $800,000 for some one-bedroom units. But much of the cost is in expensive California land, high-cost California labor, and time-wasting California permitting processes. None of which are factors when people are housed on rail cars.

Instead, using housing money to buy rail cars—with private bathrooms—means that the high-speed rail authority could devote more of its funding to building rail and stations (which might also be used for housing).

Talk about a win-win!

Indeed, combining homeless housing and high-speed rail could answer objections that dog both programs.

For example, cities often can’t build homeless housing because of aggressive opposition from neighborhood NIMBYs. But NIMBYs would lose their developer targets, and their backyard objections, when housing is simply zooming past, at 200 miles per hour.

And on the high-speed rail side, hosting homeless Californians answers persistent questions about whether there would be enough riders to support the project. Surveys show little public interest in using high-speed trains, especially because the first segment will run between the smaller cities of Merced and Bakersfield.

But in a Homeless High-Speed Rail project, unhoused individuals would provide a large and steady ridership base.

Strange as my proposal may seem, almost nothing about it is new.

Keeping homeless people constantly on the move sounds cruel, but it is already an established and popular policy across California. After all, cities and police are always tearing down homeless encampments, and forcing unhoused people to keep moving.

In addition, the idea of converting spaces intended for other purposes into housing isn’t new. The state, cities, and counties have already converted dozens of hotels to serve as housing for the unhoused, under Projects Roomkey and Homekey. A Bay Area housing activist even offered a plan to house homeless people in old railcars.

If you board L.A. Metro or the San Diego trolley or other local transit systems in the state, you’ll see that individuals without homes are California’s most dedicated train riders. Thousands of unhoused Californians all but live on these local trains now, because of the low-cost shelter they provide. Indeed, homelessness is so much a part of transit that, earlier this year, BART adopted its first Homeless Action Plan, which includes promises to develop housing itself.

Of course, there will be some Californians, perhaps millions, who object to the whole concept, finding it perverse. These misguided moralists, a few of whom write columns, will say that California is a very rich place that surely can afford to house all its people and to build the same high-speed rail system that two dozen other countries have. And they will claim that California must learn to build and manage giant new housing and infrastructure projects if it’s going to survive the adaptation challenges of climate change.

In theory, these skeptical Californians will probably be right. But California doesn’t operate on theory. It operates on an unmanageable budget process, a volatile tax code, and a broken governing system that both parties refuse to fix. It has a state government that can’t adopt modern technology or manage a payroll, much less translate its people’s democratic preferences into major action. The way California operates now, the state will never have enough housing for the homeless, or a real high-speed spine for its transportation networks.

So, before you dismiss my modest proposal, just ask yourself: In the face of massive failures, when doing big and essential things is nearly impossible, is there any plan too awful to take off the table?


Send A Letter To the Editors

    Please tell us your thoughts. Include your name and daytime phone number, and a link to the article you’re responding to. We may edit your letter for length and clarity and publish it on our site.

    (Optional) Attach an image to your letter. Jpeg, PNG or GIF accepted, 1MB maximum.