California Bullet-Train Agency Eyes Central Valley-Only Service, for Now

Construction continues on an elevated section of high-speed rail track near downtown Fresno, California. (Matthew Renda/CNS)

(CN) – The California High-Speed Rail Authority indicated Tuesday it is likely to recommend approval of interim rail service connecting Central Valley cities before expanding the service to Los Angeles and San Francisco as funding becomes available.

“Our early train operator has indicated there are some worthwhile interim services that use federal and state funds to demonstrate the benefits of high-speed rail in California,” said Barbara Rooney, deputy director of legislation for the authority, during a board meeting Tuesday. “We are prepared to offer four alternatives, one of which includes providing service from Bakersfield to Fresno to Merced.”

Rooney said when authority staff submits the highly anticipated Project Update Report in the coming months, they are unlikely to recommend pursuing a “Valley-to-Valley” line connecting the Central Valley to Silicon Valley until the appropriate amount of funding is in place.

“We can only do what we can afford,” Rooney said. “We should not commit to outcomes we cannot provide funding for.”

For proponents of high-speed rail in California, the news does not bode well for the project’s future. Critics contend ridership between the three Central Valley cities will be insufficient to warrant the enormous taxpayer cost. They say such a plan also falls well short of a constitutional mandate to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco with a rail journey of under 2 ½ hours.

But Governor Gavin Newsom, who inherited the project, asked the authority reconsider its original ambitious designs and instead focus on getting rail service in the Central Valley up and running.

“I think the governor has asked us to take a pause and look at alternatives for what we are doing,” said rail authority board member Ernesto Camacho.

After Newsom’s indication he would seek a scaled down version of the project, the Trump administration demanded as much as $2.5 billion in grants be returned to federal coffers.

The rail authority responded last month, telling the administration that such a clawback in funds would serve neither the state nor the federal government’s interests.

On Tuesday, Rooney said the rail authority has not received a response from the Federal Railroad Administration. High-speed rail has long been a focal point for Republican ire both at the state and federal level, with lawmakers and activists claiming the project is a boondoggle and there isn’t enough demand for rail service to warrant such an large public investment.

The project has been dogged by inefficiencies throughout its beginning stages, which span about a decade, with cost overruns, lawsuits and issues with eminent domain causing the overall cost estimate of the project to soar to $77 billion.  

Rail authority board member Tom Richards said he expects staff to perform its due diligence before coming to the board with a recommendation to fundamentally alter the mission.

“I can’t state this firmly enough, but we need a very in-depth presentation supported by the work necessary to make a recommendation that is a major change in direction from where we have been in the past,” he said.

The rail authority’s early operator is German transportation firm DB Engineering, a subsidiary of that country’s railway giant Deutsche Bahn. The company said it found cost savings and efficiencies in infrastructure which will also be presented in the upcoming update report, Rooney said.

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