With limited funds, should the high speed train in California be high speed?


Dive brief:

  • The 520-mile high-speed rail line project from San Francisco to Los Angeles has inflated costs and suffered numerous delays over the past eight years. Now, State Assembly Democrats are wondering how best to use existing funds for the project – in particular, the Bakersfield to Merced leg currently under construction.
  • Assembly member Laura Friedman, chair of the transportation committee and senior fundraiser, believes California High-Speed ​​Rail Authority funds could be better spent at a train station in Merced that will ensure that passengers can switch to another line to get to coastal jobs from the Valley Center, even if it’s via a diesel train rather than electric, according to the AP.
  • Friedman said overhead electrification – needed to make the train high-speed – could be completed later as more money arrives. Critics, including Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration, said it would not be what voters approved of and would not bring clean energy benefits.

Dive overview:

A new debate about California’s beleaguered high-speed rail project has emerged: should it even be high-speed, and if so, should it happen right away?

The railway line is currently under active construction along 119 miles in the central valley on more than 30 different sites. When completed, it would be the country’s first long-distance high-speed train. The current plan is to start train operations by 2030, but with late construction this date could be pushed back again.

The project faces at least another billion dollars in cost increases proposed by its contractors due to design changes, according to a recent study Los Angeles Times report. Originally, the entire line was set to cost $ 33 billion and be completed last year, but the price has risen to $ 98 billion, which could force the state to deepen future funding just to complete the first one. 171 mile stage. Overall, the project is tens of billions of dollars in funding shortfall, which is one of the reasons it is being built in stages.

Next year, the railway authorities want to sign a contract with a company that will design and build 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 passengers could get off the high-speed train and take another system to reach the San Francisco area. However, the construction of this 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.

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

Federal funds could help

The rail project just recovered $ 1 billion in federal funds that the Trump administration had revoked, and the new contract specifically cites an electrified train. Additional federal funds could help fill budget holes, with $ 10 billion currently earmarked for bullet train in the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill, according to Politico.

The the vote on the infrastructure bill could take place this week, Newsweek reported, but the amount of funds for the project may change in the last iteration, if it is successful. Additionally, if the line is not electrified, it could jeopardize California’s ability to compete for federal sustainability-related pots of money, according to the AP report.

Despite all the problems, progress is being made. Earlier this month, the California High-Speed ​​Rail Authority (CHSRA) approved the final environmental impact report/ Environmental impact study for the 80 mile Bakersfield to Palmdale section of the line. This approval will allow CHSRA to begin pre-construction work as funding becomes available and will pave the way for full environmental clearance for 300 miles of the line.

What didn’t go well?

The project was seen as a test of whether the United States can move away from its long-standing automotive culture and move towards a more environmentally friendly transportation system. Unfortunately, some choices made at the start of the project may have put him in difficulty.

The Obama administration conditioned federal funding on the start of construction in the Central Valley rather than near one of the endpoints of the line, believing that future leaders would feel pressured not to cut it. and 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 exceeded. This has led to frustration and backlash as the state has little to show for all the time and expense spent so far.

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