With limited funds, should California's bullet train be high-speed?

With limited funds, should California’s bullet train be high-speed?

Phil Puccio

Dive Brief:

  • The 520-mile high-speed rail line project from San Francisco to Los Angeles has ballooned in cost and faced numerous delays over the past eight years. Now Democrats in the state Assembly are questioning how to best make use of existing funds for the project — in particular, the Bakersfield to Merced leg currently under construction.
  • Assemblymember Laura Friedman, chair of the transportation committee and a lead funding negotiator, thinks the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s funds might be best spent on a station at Merced that will ensure riders can transfer to another line to get to coastal jobs from the Central Valley, even if it’s via a diesel rather than electric train, according to the AP.
  • Friedman said overhead electrification — necessary to make the train high-speed — could be finished later as more money comes in. Detractors, including Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration, said that wouldn’t be what voters endorsed and wouldn’t bring clean energy benefits.

Dive Insight:

A new debate over California’s beleaguered bullet train project has emerged: Should it even be high-speed, and if so, must it happen right away?

The rail line is currently under active construction along 119 miles in the Central Valley at over 30 different construction sites. When completed, it would be the nation’s first long-distance high-speed rail. The current plan is to start train operations by 2030, but with construction behind schedule, that date may be pushed back again.

The project is facing at least another $1 billion in proposed cost increases from its contractors due to design changes, according to recent reporting from the Los Angeles Times. Originally, the entire line was supposed to cost $33 billion and be completed last year, but the price tag has risen to $98 billion, which could force the state to dig deeper into its future funding just to complete the first 171-mile leg. Overall, the project is short of funding by tens of billions of dollars, which is one reason it’s being built in stages. 

Next year, rail officials want to enter into a contract with a firm that will design and construct an electrified track system and maintain it for 30 years. They also want to partner with local transit agencies to create a single station in Merced where riders could get off the high-speed train and onto another system to reach the San Francisco area. However, construction for that station is not yet fully funded, prompting Friedman to question whether electrification is a lower priority than connecting the line to a key jobs hub.

Last month, California legislators ended their 2021 session without releasing $4.2 billion in bond money for the project, the last of the $10 billion fund voters created in 2008. That could delay work even further, as the California High-Speed Rail Authority said it needs those funds to continue construction beyond next summer. Gov. Gavin Newsom and members of the Legislature hope to reach an agreement before the latter returns for session in January, but negotiations are currently stalled.

Federal funds could help

The rail project just won back $1 billion in federal funds that the Trump administration had revoked, and the new contract cites an electrified train specifically. Further federal money could help plug budget holes, with $10 billion currently earmarked for high-speed rail in the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill, according to Politico

The vote on the infrastructure bill could happen this week, Newsweek reported, but the amount of funds for the project may change in the final iteration, if it does pass. In addition, if the line is not electrified, that could jeopardize California’s ability to compete for sustainability-related federal pots of money, according to AP reporting.

Despite all the issues, there is progress being made. Earlier this month, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) approved the Final Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement for the 80-mile Bakersfield to Palmdale section of the line. This approval will allow the CHSRA to begin pre-construction work as funding becomes available, and paves the way for full environmental clearance for 300 miles of the line. 

What went wrong?

The project has been seen as a test for whether the U.S. can move away from its longstanding car culture and towards a more environmentally sustainable transportation network. Unfortunately, certain choices made at the project’s inception may have set it up for difficulty. 

The Obama administration conditioned federal funding on starting construction in the Central Valley rather than near one of the end points of the line, with the thinking that future leaders would feel obligated to not scale it back and would extend it to larger urban areas as planned, according to Vox. Voters were also given an overly low cost estimate that the project has since blown past. That has led to frustration and backlash, as the state has little to show for all of the time and expense expended thus far.

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