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California's High-Speed Rail: A Look at Progress Made Amid Funding Shortfalls

California's High-Speed Rail: A Look at Progress Made Amid Funding Shortfalls

  The Central Valley link project remains on schedule to open by 2030; however, costs have skyrocketed and ridership estimates have decreased drastically, diminishing hopes of receiving federal assistance for its construction. Though Newsom may have received criticism for calling the current San Francisco-to-Los Angeles rail route "a train to nowhere", he has advanced many projects necessary to build it. Cost Updates In 2008, a high-speed rail link connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco seemed like an achievable dream. After voters approved $9 billion in state bonds to fund it, project leaders estimated it could be operating by 2020; relieving pressure on overstrained airport and highway infrastructure while transitioning away from fossil fuel dependence in our nation. But reality has proven otherwise. The project has been beset by political infighting, budget issues and delays that pushed its completion back to 2028 at best; costs have skyrocketed as well - recent estimates put total construction cost at over $128 billion. At that time, voters were promised $33 billion when approving the bond issue in 2008. Merced and Bakersfield decisions to construct elevated stations and realign tracks has had the biggest effect, pushing initial segment costs by $4 billion. Other significant increases can be attributed to COVID-19 impacts, inflationary pressures and more expensive materials like concrete and steel. Construction on the first 171-mile Central Valley segment between Merced and Bakersfield has already started, though passengers likely won't start using it until at least 2028 - according to Newsom's vision of its development, even later could be possible. Governor Whitmer made his announcement after receiving mounting pressure from legislators and the public for him to cut costs and speed up construction projects. Some lawmakers, such as the chair of Assembly Transportation committee, have even accused him of engaging in "hypocrisy" by not cutting enough. One possible solution would be diverting funds from the federal highway fund into high-speed rail, but convincing Congress of that fact may prove challenging given that other projects already have priority for this money and may not welcome being doled out to California in any form. Realistically, one option could be diverting some of the $75 billion infrastructure bill pot towards California High-Speed Rail Authority chief executive Brian Kelly's $8 billion goal; even with additional state support it will still be challenging for this system to financially work. Jon Switalski interviewed Brian on his podcast recently - explaining why such an aggressive goal may still require support to make work financially. Ridership Estimates In 2008, California voters approved $9 billion bonds to finance a high-speed rail project with the expectation that it would provide quick and convenient travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Proponents touted its promise as an alternative to traffic congestion, air pollution and climate change; modern trains running on electric tracks would likely be both more cost effective and faster than airplanes or cars, not to mention providing California businesses with vital services at stations along the routes - potentially stimulating business development while helping grow existing ventures as well. Due to delays and cost overruns, the system is now years behind schedule, ridership estimates that inspired initial bond sales have dramatically declined and a recent report states the project is significantly more costly, shorter, and slower than originally projected. The California High Speed Rail Authority commissioned this study, after finding it difficult to secure funds for its project. They have spent $8.5 billion so far but still require $35 billion more in order to complete it from Merced to Bakersfield; three times more than what was initially estimated as needed for completion of all lines between those cities. Even if enough money can be found, construction of the project may take decades longer than projected and only benefit a fraction of the population. At present, the authority is prioritizing a much shorter section in Central Valley which connects several medium-sized cities in this flat agricultural region; even if everything falls into place and persuasion of legislators releases funds, this section may not go live until 2030 at best. Nonpartisan state analysts have raised serious doubts about the reliability of CHRSA's cost estimates, calling on it to increase transparency. Bill Ibbs, a retired Berkeley civil engineer who serves on its Peer Review Group and consults on high-speed rail projects worldwide, expressed concerns that the new numbers do not take into account engineering risks such as construction delays and changes in climate conditions. CHRSA lobbyists counter that when completed, the Merced-to-Bakersfield section will demonstrate its value and convince federal lawmakers to fund a link from Bakersfield to San Diego. They note how investments made into highways and passenger airlines have resulted in greater mobility and economic development. Management Changes The authority has made several management adjustments over the years to keep pace with construction deadlines and address challenges associated with creating America's first high-speed rail line. Brian Kelly, its chief executive officer, declined to discuss three specific actions identified by The Los Angeles Times but expressed confidence in there being an acceptable path forward. Supporters of the line argue it will benefit local economies, create jobs, and draw visitors from around the world. Furthermore, it will relieve pressure on Texas' overloaded highway and airport infrastructure; and in case of an earthquake striker disaster it would aid people escape and shelter safely in place. However, some critics suggest declaring the project a failure and allocating the money towards more cost-effective improvements for California's existing train network - an approach increasingly favored by legislators such as Kopp. At present, however, California's leadership disagrees. Governor Newsom recently surprised many when he downsized the project significantly during his State of the State address, saying it would be too expensive and time consuming to link San Francisco and Los Angeles together; yet he indicated his desire to move ahead with a section between Merced and Bakersfield. Once completed in 2030, the 171-mile starter segment should serve as proof-of-concept that should convince state and federal authorities to allocate billions more dollars toward an eventual system linking California's major metropolitan areas - however its estimated cost currently exceeds $10 billion secured funding for its entirety. As part of its efforts to find a path forward, the rail authority plans on providing its latest update at an oversight hearing hosted by Democratic Senator Lena Gonzalez from Long Beach on March 28. She plans to question Kelly on costs projected and other issues raised in its report. Bakersfield-Merced delays have been partially caused by difficulties associated with relocating underground utilities like sewer lines, water pipes, and gas lines. To address this, the authority has moved its target date from 2022 to 2030 for this work - although that might change depending on what budgetary resources the government allots for 2023. Land Acquisition Voters approved Proposition 1A funding for high-speed rail in 2008 with the original expectation that it would cost $33 billion and be ready to run by 2018. Unfortunately, construction delays, cost increases, litigation, and litigation have postponed this date considerably - now, according to an update report issued this week, its price tag for the initial 171 mile segment in the Central Valley has skyrocketed to an estimated cost of around $128 billion, well exceeding what was secured as funding level. In its report from the California High-Speed Rail Authority (HSRA), or High Speed Rail Authority of California, or HSRA, notes that environmental clearance has been given for 422 miles of the project and construction is underway on 119 of those miles within California's agricultural center. But they warn that final completion could take longer than expected and delay operational debut by up to 2026 or more. Project projections have raised many questions regarding whether the project can deliver on its promise of faster, greener transportation than either driving or flying - further fuelling a political debate about whether its goal of connecting downtown stations in San Francisco and Los Angeles with an electrified train capable of traveling at 220 mph should continue. Since 2008, the cost of an entire project has skyrocketed since 2008. According to a newly commissioned study from the state auditor's office, inflation is chief among other reasons for its surge. Furthermore, no specific funding source exists and private investors remain difficult to attract as factors driving this increase. Construction projects have been plagued with delays caused by moving utilities out of the way of future trains. A recent status report indicated 2,800 projects to relocate underground sewers, water lines and gas pipes had yet to be completed causing significant construction delays. HSRA has been slow in acquiring land for its Central Valley Project despite having the authority to condemn properties. According to some lawmakers, its processes have been mismanaged. Assemblymembers Jim Patterson and Frank Bigelow have requested that the Joint Legislative Audit Committee conduct an investigation of how the HSRA acquires privately-owned properties in Central Valley."

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