By Don Thompson, Associated Press
SACRAMENTO, Calif (AP) — The estimated cost to complete California’s high-speed rail line rose another $1.3 billion, to $80.3 billion, while construction is on schedule to meet a 2022 deadline to have about 20% of the track laid, according to a new business plan released Wednesday.
The cost bump is less than in previous years, and is mainly because the plan pushes back the completion of a high-speed rail link between Silicon Valley and the Central Valley by 18 months, to late 2031.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s latest business plan comes amid pressure from state lawmakers, some of whom want to peel off more of the money to help commuters in the state’s population centers. The 168-page report attempts to counter those critics by emphasizing the $3 billion already going to so-called “bookend” projects in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas.
Five Southern California Democratic legislators, led by powerful Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, said in a statement that they are disappointed in the new plan and will “insist that discussions include our proposed alternative that provides for early service investments in other high-speed rail corridors while also continuing work in the Central Valley.”
The final plan will be sent to state lawmakers by May, after public comments and legislative hearings.
“We continue to make investments in all three regions of the state,” said Brian Kelly, the project’s chief executive, adding that “California is further along than I think a lot of people think.”
The increase in the projected baseline cost is smaller than previous jumps, with Kelly calling it ”virtually unchanged” and within the ranges of recent previous estimates. The 2016 business plan estimated the project would cost $64 billion. The authority raised that to $77 billion in the 2018 business plan and added $2 billion to the estimate just last year.
It was initially projected to cost less than $34 billion, when completion of the entire project was expected by this year.
The new plan continues to project that the entire San Francisco to Los Angeles route will be running by 2033 — a quarter-century after California voters first approved it — “assuming funding is available when needed.”
The draft business plan, which is released every two years, projects that managers can meet the more urgent federal deadline in two years.
By then the state must have 119 miles (192 kilometers) completed, with track on the ground. It must also have environmental clearance for all 520 miles (837 kilometers) to meet its deadline to use $3.5 billion that the state won under the Obama administration to build an initial segment of track in the Central Valley.
California is suing to block the Trump administration from withdrawing a $929 million grant for the project on the grounds that the state isn’t making enough progress toward the deadline.
Beyond that, the plan calls for expanding to 171 miles (275 kilometers) connecting Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield, which it calls “three of the fastest growing areas in California.” It calls for testing electrified high-speed trains by 2025 and put those trains in service by 2028-29. From Merced, passengers could connect to existing rail services to the San Francisco Bay Area, but those heading to Los Angeles would have to take a bus.
The draft plan says that sticking to the Central Valley plan brings the highest speed (up to 220 mph), the largest ridership and revenue increases, the most traffic congestion relief and the greatest air quality benefits over competing options.
“We don’t think that now is the time to turn back,” Kelly said.
The currently projected available funds are only about a quarter of what’s needed to complete the full project.
Central Valley Republican state lawmakers, who hold little sway in a Legislature controlled by Democrats, again urged that California cut its losses.
Assemblyman Vince Fong of Bakersfield, vice chairman of his chamber’s Transportation Committee, said lawmakers should “put an end to this failed project” that “now looks nothing like what was told to the voters in the beginning.”
Assemblyman Jim Patterson, who represents Fresno and is one of the project’s harshest critics, cited Democrats’ infighting over available money.
“The Authority continues to hope billions will magically appear, while the fight to siphon off Central Valley dollars for Southern California rages on,” he said in a statement calling it “a pathetic fight for the scraps of a failing project.”
The draft plan once again calls for the Legislature to allow the authority to borrow money for construction against the state’s cap-and-trade program that raises money from companies that release greenhouse gases. The same recommendation was in the 2018 final plan.
The plan still includes no commitments from the private sector, although authority officials say they are encouraged by other private proposals including building a 180-mile high-speed train link between Las Vegas and Southern California and are working closely with developer Virgin Trains USA.