California's high-speed rail project continues forward with anything but high speed, finally breaking ground in January of 2015 in Fresno where the first phase of construction sought to connect that Central Valley town with Madera, another just 29 miles away. To make the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in under three hours by rail will take a bit longer: 2029 was the projected year for that as of the 2015 groundbreaking. Though contention over the ambitious project is nothing new, given the particularly sharp shift in political winds, the $64 billion project faces new uncertainty, coming under fire from Republican lawmakers who seem intent on slowing the proceedings to a halt.
This month, the LA Times revealed a confidential risk report from the Federal Railroad Administration that claimed an 118-mile segment of the high-speed rail project, from Merced to Shafter in Kern County, might cost $10 billion as opposed to the $7.5 billion it's allotted. Naturally, that fueled concerns over the project, serving as more fodder for its critics. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California in particular is leading the latest charge according to the Chronicle, calling the plan a "boondoggle."
So far the rail authority has spent $2.7 billion in state and federal funding on the project, and under the Obama administration, $3.3 billion in federal funding was committed to it. Rail authority officials will seek $3 billion in added federal funding, but "With the new administration," a democratic representative from Concord, Mark DeSaulnier, told the Chronicle, "I don’t think there is much hope for getting more federal funding."
Even without federal funding, the project can survive, or so rail authority officials say, but that's provided the current cap-and-trade funding the project receives doesn't disappear. It might: The California climate-change policy of requiring companies to purchase permits for greenhouse gases emitted in excess of set limits creates revenue for the state that it invests in green solutions, a full quarter of which is reserved for the high-speed rail.
But cap and trade, which in the past four years has yielded $1.2 billion to the rail authority, was approved by a simple majority of the state legislature. A case that's been ongoing for three years and is to be heard in Sacramento in the Third District Court of Appeals tomorrow contends that the cap and trade legislation in fact needs a two-thirds majority. Furthermore, it's set to expire in 2020, but could be extended with an urgency bill that Governor Brown has asked the Legislature to pass, with a two-thirds majority, this year.
The first main phase of the high-speed rail project, the 250-mile line from the area of Bakersfield to San Jose, is still expected to be in operation by 2025. By then, Caltrain's tracks will be electrified, officials say, and that rail line will be ready to immediately connect high-speed trains to San Francisco. Yay for quick jaunts to Bakersfield! But how much farther the train will go, and by when, remains anyone's guess as the far more logistically difficult portion remains the connection between the Central Valley and the Los Angeles basin, which is going to require tunneling under mountains..