It might be time to dust off those dreams of the long-elusive high-speed rail coming into downtown San Francisco, but these dreams are contingent on the federal government paying for roughly half of the $6.7 billion price tag.
It’s a weird phase right now for Bay Area public transit projects. One day they’re announcing mind-boggling, ambitious expansions, the next day they’re saying they might not have any money. But there is one constant in Bay Area public transportation, and that's the consistent failure to launch of high-speed rail.
To be fair, the California high-speed rail project did hit some milestones in 2022, just nowhere near here. The San Jose-to-Merced route got its funding approved, though that’s state funding, and Governor Newsom may decide to slash it. But you know the old saying about ‘When mom says no, ask grandma instead?’ That’s kind of what the local high-speed rail project is doing, as the Chronicle reports that the Transbay Joint Powers Authority is submitting plans for the high-speed rail underground link to the Salesforce Transit Center, but asking the federal government rather than the state to kick in the few billion dollars they don’t have.
“This is a generational infrastructure project,” Transbay Joint Powers Authority executive director Adam Van de Water told the Chronicle. “We want to connect San Francisco to Silicon Valley and Los Angeles in a sustainable way... If you want to compete with automobiles and planes, the service has to be convenient, reliable and affordable.”
Okay, that’s the sales pitch. Now let’s talk price tag, which you will be unsurprised to hear has gone up. That estimate is now $6.7 billion, according to the Chronicle, up from $5 billion in 2016. Yes, the federal government might pay half of that, out of the giant pot of Biden’s $1 trillion 2021 infrastructure bill. But the Department of Transportation will be fine-tooth combing all of the applications for a share of that $1 trillion, and the Transbay Joint Powers Authority will be up against many, many other applicants.
Plus we will note this is a $6.7 billion bill for what the Chronicle describes as just a “2-mile extension.”
Going in the project's favor there is the fact that this project already has its environmental approvals, and voters have already approved a bunch of bond funding — not to mention the grand scale of the thing and the huge concrete box in the basement of the Transit Center that is already built and just waiting for some tracks and trains to arrive.
As the Chronicle's John King also points out, using the gentlest language possible, “large infrastructure projects rarely go as smoothly as hoped.” I mean come on, you remember what happened when they opened the Salesforce Transit Center in 2018, and the place was shut for nearly a year. Even if such bungles can be avoided (and again, billions in not-yet-awarded federal dollars are necessary here too), construction would not break ground until 2025, and thing wouldn’t be completed any earlier than 2032 — though that's in time for the current completion estimate of the high-speed rail's Phase 2 connecting LA and SF, which is 2033.
Image: Fullmetal2887 via Wikimedia Commons