I wrote the following about the California High Speed Rail project 18 months ago:
Caveat: high speed rail is something that should absolutely be built to connect America’s cities, as is done throughout the rest of the world. However, the $68 billion California high speed rail project has missed every deadline so far and has no viable solution for moving forward. I don’t envy the people trying to make it work – they are saddled with a set of difficult and often conflicting constraints that are set by law, a political environment in which financing is uncertain, and everyone from Congress members to farmers trying to use whatever legal options are available to delay or kill the project – but more than five years after approval there is absolutely no excuse for not having a workable plan.
Since I wrote the above there have been a few positive developments:
- California has budgeted 25% of all cap and trade funds to high speed rail, amounting to $750 million in 2015 and likely increasing in future years, so the project now has a not-insignificant portion of its funding. Whether devoting such a large percentage of cap and trade revenue to high speed rail is the best use of the funds is highly debatable, but viewed solely from the standpoint of the rail project it is a positive development.
- Construction has started in the Central Valley, and even if the project somehow fails to be completed the initial work will still offer safety and traffic benefits via grade separation of existing rail lines.
- Nearly a decade after the project was conceived, Caltrain and high-speed rail finally seem to be doing some coordination on development in the Peninsula with Caltrain announcing plans to standardize the height of their boarding platforms with high speed rail.
- There has been discussion about expediting the Palmdale to Burbank section of high speed rail, which could be operated on its own to reduce commute times in LA from ninety minutes down to twenty. While the Bay Area and the Central Valley are fighting high-speed rail, Southern California has so far been enthusiastic about the potential for improved transit options.
- Of the two segments of the network that have been bid out for construction, both have come in under the projected budget. The first segment, 30 miles from Madera to Fresno, was estimated to cost $1.2-1.5 billion but was bid for $985 million. The second segment, 65 miles from Fresno south, was estimated to cost $1.5-2 billion, but was bid for $1.36 billion.
Despite the positive developments there remain an enormous number of reasons for concern:
- In its first real chance to prove that it can get things done now that construction is starting, the rail authority is already one year behind its own schedule for acquiring land in the initial segment that is currently being built.
- The rail agency is still sticking with cost estimates that are almost certainly unrealistic. While the two segments in the Central Valley came in under budget, building a route through the mountains and across active seismic faults, as well as through the densely populated Bay Area and Los Angeles area, will most definitely be difficult and expensive, and that cost and difficulty will only be increased by the ongoing delays.
- In the Bay, Caltrain and high-speed rail will share the same corridor, but the two have barely coordinated. Caltrain is spending $231 million on a train control system that is incompatible with high-speed rail, is spending over $1 billion to electrify just 51 miles of rail and doing so without fully coordinating with the high speed rail project, and until recently was considering buying new trains with doors at a different height than the high speed rail trains, meaning platforms could not be shared. Both projects would save MASSIVE amounts of time and money if they would just work together, but for whatever reason they repeatedly fail to do so.
- High speed rail has unfortunately become a political issue, with all Republicans now expected to state their opposition to anything that resembles a high-speed train, no matter what its merits may be. There would be tremendous benefit in having critical yet rational oversight of California’s rail project, but politicizing things unfortunately has the effect of causing one side to promote the project and gloss over its faults, while the other promises to kill it at the first opportunity despite its obvious benefits.
- There is still NIMBY opposition to high speed rail from wealthy Bay Area communities like Palo Alto that at worst could kill the project, and at best will result in compromises that will harm the system as a whole. The Peninsula is perhaps the most important segment in the entire route, and sadly is also by far the most troubled and least advanced.
I hope that this project is eventually built, but I’m far less enthusiastic than I once was due to the poor management that has characterized things so far. In my own community I’ve watched millions of dollars disappear into legal fees as Beverly Hills fought a much-needed subway for no reason that anyone can understand, and I’ve watched my own neighbors fight changes to make flights into LAX more efficient solely because some areas might occasionally get slightly louder plane noise; neither of those situations inspire confidence that a questionable management team will be able to quell the opposition to the much larger and more complex rail project sufficiently to allow the project to be a success. That said, it’s worth remembering that nearly every major infrastructure project, whether the Golden Gate bridge or the interstate highway system, was loudly opposed by some of the populace, but once built the opposition disappeared as the benefits became obvious. With luck, in another 20 years we’ll be riding the train to San Francisco and wondering how anyone could have ever opposed such a useful transit option.