California's beleaguered high-speed rail project hasn't been abandoned yet, but its ballooning costs and ever-extending timeline are enough to make anyone wonder if any of us will be alive to see this thing up and running.
The latest is that some state legislators in Sacramento are hemming and hawing about releasing the last the voter-approved bond funds to the rail project, which transportation officials say are needed to continue construction past next summer. It's about $4.2 billion that remains of the $10 billion approved by voters in 2008, and as the Associated Press reports, the fight is over whether the California High-Speed Rail Authority should use part of that sum to enter into a contract with a firm to design, construct, and maintain electrified tracks for the system — a necessity if this rail line is, in fact, going to be high-speed, the rail authority says.
Negotiations over this will need to wrap up by the time legislators go back into session in January.
But if the actual high-speed rail line that voters approved, connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles, is still decades away, or if it could possibly be abandoned in the absence of funding, some lawmakers argue that this money should instead be spent on other rail projects where more Californians actually live. Specifically, several Los Angeles legislators want the money to come to their city, instead of building an electrified track system that, when it's set to be completed in eight years, will still only connect Merced and Bakersfield.
This fight dates back to at least June, when people like Assemblymember Luz Rivas (D-Arleta) and Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D-Los Angeles) began expressing doubts about whether the money in hand should be better spent, given all the uncertainties about funding.
"I worry that insufficient funding could leave us with infrastructure that doesn’t accomplish the vision of high-speed rail, and doesn’t benefit Southern California," Rivas said in June, per the Chronicle.
Friedman, who chairs the transportation committee and currently leading the negotiations over funding, is advocating to give the rail authority $2.5 billion now, and for them to wait to negotiate the track contract. She suggests that a diesel train line might be the interim solution, with electrified overhead wires to be added later.
"I’m not arguing that that’s an optimal solution, but I think that people need to be honest about what we have the money to do right now," Friedman said to the Associated Press.
Costs for the whole high-speed rail project have ballooned from what some say was a lowball estimate to begin with of $33 billion to $98 billion — and just last year, the budget had it at $15 billion less than that. Federal money will likely flow to the project if and when President Biden's infrastructure bill passes, but the project was thrown into uncertainty twice in recent years, first by former President Trump yanking almost $1 billion in funds and then again by the pandemic, which caused the projects cap-and-trade auction funding to dry up. The latter has bounced back, and in June, the U.S. Department of Transportation under Biden negotiated with the state to restore the funding Trump took away.
At present, the best estimate is that the Merced-to-Bakersfield line will open for service in 2029 (five years ago, it was supposed to be done by 2022), and there will be service from San Francisco to Los Angeles four years later, in 2033. But there are a lot of contingencies to that timeline, not the least of which are the construction of a rail corridor from San Jose to Merced, and the electrification of the Caltrain tracks and construction of passing tracks so that high-speed trains can share the Caltrain corridor with commuter trains.
San Francisco is nowhere near getting started on the so-called DTX or downtown extension that will connect the empty train boxes underneath Salesforce Transit Center to the existing Caltrain tracks, but that seems like a minor concern, comparatively, at this point.
One positive step forward on the southern end of the project is the rail authority's board of directors' August approval of the Final Environmental Impact Report for the Bakersfield-to-Palmdale segment, which at least gets the train line into Los Angeles county, theoretically. The goal is to have full environmental document approval for the entire SF-to-LA project by 2023. (This is considered Phase 1, with Sacramento and San Diego connections further in the future).
And, despite mostly negative headlines that arrive for the project, construction is ongoing at 35 different sites along the 119-mile stretch in the Central Valley, with an average of 1,100 workers at work daily. (If you want occasional visual updates from the construction sites, follow the high-speed rail project's Instagram account.)
Governor Gavin Newsom's office gave a statement to the Associated Press saying that anything short of electrification is not an option.
"We believe the time for slow, diesel-emitting rail is over, and we remain committed to a transportation future that moves people quickly and does so without further polluting our environment."
Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla also issued a join statement to legislators saying, "Now is not the time for California to step back from its commitment to high-speed rail."
Experts warn that if California backs away from high-speed rail, it risks not only losing federal funding to other projects, but also discouraging other U.S. high-speed rail projects in the future.
It should be noted that Japan's first high-speed bullet train, the Tokaido Shinkansen, which turns 57 years old this year, also saw its budget nearly triple by the time it was completed. But, also, that train line only took five years to build.