On Friday, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) announced that the deadline for the completion of the first stretch of track would be delayed by at least a year.
The high-speed rail network, which was passed as AB 3034 in 2008 in the state legislature, initially set a 2028 San Francisco to Los Angeles opening date with a cost at $40 billion. By 2013 costs soared to $98 billion, but that price tag forced some serious cost-cutting back down to $68 billion. In 2018, the cost had creeped back up to $77 billion, with the start date pushed back to the 2030’s for San Francisco to LA service. In it’s place was a more modest 2022 goal to connect Bakersfield to Merced, with that segment being priced at $12.4 billion alone. But due to more track delays, COVID-19, a deference of funds, and a Madera bridge being built wrong, the completion date is now scheduled for 2023.
The most recent delay was announced despite the shortened route goal of Merced to the city of Madera, and costs jumping up from $12.4 billion to $13.8 billion.
In 2013, the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown passed legislation to approve the first $6 billion segment of high-speed rail tracks. This first segment started with a $1.5 billion leg from Madera to Fresno in the Central Valley.
As billions in federal funding are tied to a 2022 deadline, the CHSRA put in a request for an extended deadline. While full details are to be announced during a CHSRA board meeting on Tuesday, CHSRA CEO Brian Kelly stated on Friday stated that COVID-19 is largely to blame for the delays and that he hopes to get get more federal support.
“The High-Speed Rail Authority has not been spared nor is it alone in being impacted by COVID-19,” said Kelly in a statement on Friday. “We have commenced conversations with the Biden Administration on these matters. Because the project is advancing, as noted below, we believe we can work with our federal partner on our revised schedule and restore federal investment in this program.”
Federal support for the high-speed rail system had dropped off in the last 4 years due to the Trump administration disapproving of the plan. Key support for the project, including almost $1 billion in funding, was taken away in the late 2010’s by the federal government.
But with the Biden administration and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg committed to bring more high-speed rail to the United States, the CHSRA is hoping for quick extension approval as well as for more federal support in the next few years, including the $1 billion in funding being given back.
More rising costs, delays expected in future
But many experts say that, even with increased federal help, costs are likely to rise and more delays will likely occur due to the scope of the project.
“A lot of railroad companies and organizations, both in the U.S. and outside of it, are watching this closely,” explained German passenger railroad consultant Horst Bauer to the Globe. “And we’re looking at all the construction still needed to be done, the improvements to train stations needed, environmental studies needed, local clearances, reserve time and money for unforeseen delays, and everything else. It will take much longer.”
“Here in Germany we have a well laid out system, but there are times where we expand to another place, especially in the Eastern part of the country. It takes years of planning. Sometimes decades. The consultation with the Berlin subway system has been going on since the country was reunited and it is still being connected back together today. California was ambitious for a 20 year timetable. I know some politicians were thinking of how likely that would happen because they thought of the transcontinental railroad being completed at a quick pace. But things have changed very much since then.”
“Many think it’s the right thing to build, but it wasn’t upfront of what was really needed, so many people are upset about it. In Germany, if costs grew like that, we would have people feel the same way and call it a waste of money. In the US and California, with a larger car and airplane culture, that is only larger.”
“But, through decades of experience, I will say that costs will climb higher and the expected dates will be prolonged. I have heard from many Californians who have called this a boondoggle, and after looking up the word, it seems true. I don’t know what more will happen with this rail system in the future, but from experience, for the citizens of California, it will only get worse.”
Final details of the delay and extra costs are due Tuesday.