Cost of Central Valley Bullet Train Spikes by $1.8 Billion

An artist’s rendering of a bullet train gliding through a California city. (Credit: California High-Speed Rail Authority)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – The California Legislature heard Wednesday that the price tag for building the embattled high-speed rail project through the Central Valley went up again, this time by $1.8 billion.

The cost of connecting Merced to Bakersfield via Fresno increased to a total of $12.4 billion, according to the May 2019 project update report, up from $10.6 billion a year ago. The news prompted Republican lawmakers to repeat their calls to abandon the project.

“This report reconfirms what I have said before, the high-speed rail project needs to be scrapped entirely because it will continue to be plagued with cost overruns, delays, and management failures,” said Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield.

The cost to build a partially operating system, connecting the largely rural and agriculture-dominated Central Valley to the Silicon Valley has risen to $20.4 billion. Providing Californians with a high-speed rail system that connects Los Angeles to San Francisco – the vision of system’s founders and what voter approved in Proposition 1A – is close to $80 billion.

Despite another spike – nearly half of which will go to boost the contingency fund in the event of unforeseen expenses – California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Brian Kelly said the business plan demonstrates constructing and operating a train in the Central Valley is feasible.

“The project update report demonstrates a clear path forward of what we can – and will – do in the next few years to make high-speed rail a reality in California,” Kelly said Wednesday.

The CEO also points to the environmental work throughout the entire system as further evidence of Governor Gavin Newsom’s commitment to bring a fully realized high-speed transit system to fruition.

Newsom created confusion earlier this year when he said the state would scale back its efforts to connect California’s two largest metropolitan areas, with many believing Newsom was prepared to abandon the project entirely.

The governor and the authority have since revealed their intent it to build a more modest segment that connects Bakersfield to Merced, although critics continue to doubt whether demand in those cities will justify the expense of both constructing and operating the system.

“Taxpayers are being asked to pay more and in return, and they are getting a conventional slower train that does not resemble what was told to voters in 2008,” Fong said.

Wednesday’s report pegs ridership at 1.7 million people annually. The rail authority will also rely heavily on slower trains to convey people to San Jose and other parts of the state.

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

Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, called for an investigation of the rail authority’s chosen early operator, DB Engineering and Consulting – a subsidiary of the German rail giant Deutsche Bahn with a great deal of experience administering systems in Europe.

“Making it up as you go along, handing over the decisions to handle billions of dollars of public money by private consultants who had everything to gain by telling us they were doing just fine,” Patterson said.

Newsom has also criticized private consultants, saying he would like to curtail their role in the process.

Meanwhile, the federal government has sought to claw back billions of dollars in grants saying the state is now seeking to construct a project materially different from what was promised at the outset.

The rail authority sent the Federal Railroad Administration a letter saying such a clawback would ultimately hurt both entities.

The railroad administration has yet to respond.

As originally envisioned and approved by voters, the California high-speed rail network would run from San Francisco to the Los Angeles basin in under three hours at speeds at or above 200 miles per hour. The system would eventually extend to Sacramento and San Diego, totaling 800 miles with up to 24 stations.

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