KATHLEEN RONANE | Associated Press
SACRAMENTO. The battle for California’s high-speed rail project has sparked a new fundamental debate that could again significantly reduce problematic efforts: Should trains even be high-speed when the system goes live?
This is the Democrats’ conversation in the State Assembly during negotiations for the allocation of about $ 4 billion in bonds for the project. The California High Speed Rail Administration said the money was needed to continue construction beyond next summer. Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom included it in his state budget, but negotiations between his administration and the legislature stalled. They hope to reach an agreement when the Legislature returns to session in January.
This is the latest setback for a project that was originally expected to cost $ 33 billion and would be completed last year. Today, the dream of getting passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in less than three hours has become a distant dream. The first leg of the road connecting the two cities in the Central Valley will not begin until 2029, and the project cost has risen to $ 98 billion.
There appears to be little political will to either destroy the project entirely or provide it with more resources, leaving construction without a long-term plan.
At the center of the latest controversy is the question of how soon to electrify the line, which railroad officials say is the need to make the train high-speed – a whole idea of the project that voters liked. Next year, they want to contract with a firm to design and build electrified tracks and systems and maintain them for 30 years, effectively maintaining their condition over the long term.
Current plans call for the first leg to run from Bakersfield to Merced, where passengers would ideally be able to board another transit line to take a roundabout route to the San Francisco Bay Area. Railway executives and local transport agencies plan to create a single station at Merced where passengers can get off the high-speed train and switch to another system, but construction is not fully funded.
This prompted Democratic MP Laura Friedman, chairman of the transport committee and lead negotiator on funding, to ask whether it makes sense to fully electrify the line right away. She believes that the money of the authorities is better spent on ensuring that there is at least one station in Mercedes. This ensures that passengers can reach coastal work centers from the Central Valley, even if they are traveling by diesel train. The overheard electrification can be completed later if there is more money.
“I’m not suggesting that this is the optimal solution, but I think people should be honest about what we have the money for right now,” Friedman said.
High-speed rail officials and supporters say that using anything less than an electrified train runs counter to voters’ approval and will not bring the benefits of clean energy.
“How does this show that you’ve made a good investment in infrastructure if you continue to use the same hardware as us at relatively the same speeds?” said Dan Leavitt, Regional Initiatives Manager for the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, Altamont Corridor Express and San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, each of which is a high-speed rail partner.
The $ 4.2 billion budget bonds, which railroad officials are seeking to access, are the latest of the $ 10 billion voter funds created in 2008, and some lawmakers are hesitant to give them away right away.
Friedman has offered to set aside $ 2.5 billion now and require rail employees to return for approval before they sign a contract on rail tracks and systems.
She wants to get more money for high-speed rail, although her proposal doesn’t say how much, for projects in the Los Angeles area she represents. The state Senate did not share any spending proposals.
The Newsom administration is demanding electrification.
“We believe the time of slow, diesel-emitting railways is over, and we remain committed to a transport future that will move people quickly and without further pollution,” said company spokesman Daniel Lopez in a statement.
How to approach bond money and which strings to tie is an important decision point for the future of the project, ”said Lou Thompson, chair of the rail project’s expert group, which independently evaluates funding plans.
“If we’re going to build the whole system the way (vote initiative) demands, then the Bakersfield-Merced high-speed rail line will be a perfectly valid part of the system,” he said. “If we are not going to complete the system completely, I think you would think long and hard about electrifying the line just from Merced to Bakersfield.”
The ambitious project is being watched closely across the country as a test of whether the United States can move away from its automotive culture and catch up with other countries on high-speed rail. Supporters say the completed project will radically change the way people move while reducing carbon emissions. Detractors say this is a wasteful taxpayer-funded exercise.
“The idea of a high-speed railroad has gotten a little toxic because of the California project,” said Ethan Elkind, an expert on transit projects at the University of California, Berkeley.
In a way, the project was set to fail when voters were given an underestimate of the project’s cost. Later, President Barack Obama’s administration made federal funding conditional on the start of construction in the Central Valley, he said.
Elkind said the project is still viable, but if it is not electrified, California can compete for money if Congress passes President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, which includes tens of billions of dollars in rail projects.
“The federal government will say, ‘Look, California has given up the high speed rail.’ This is the message he is going to send, ”he said.
The project has just returned $ 1 billion in federal money withdrawn by President Donald Trump’s administration, and a new contract specifically mentions an electrified train. Democratic Senators Alex Padilla and Diane Feinstein called on lawmakers in July to issue bond money, especially given the new federal dollars at stake.
“Now is not the time for California to give up its commitment to high-speed rail,” they warned.
The project has already spent $ 2.5 billion in federal money and more than $ 3.7 billion from California’s carbon credit auction program known as cap and trade. This program should be completed in 2030.
Whether it is electrified or not, the project still lacks tens of billions of dollars – this is one of the reasons railway workers call the construction of the project in parts.
“We don’t have much money, and we never did,” said Melissa Figueroa, a spokeswoman for the railway administration.