Whither High-Speed Rail in California?


California’s ambitious plan to build a high-speed rail system linking San Francisco and Los Angeles has been getting quite a lot of attention lately. Although the plan has some high-powered supporters in Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and California Governor Jerry Brown, the level of enthusiasm in Congress has been mixed, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Carolyn Lochhead.

Earlier this month the California High Speed Rail Authority approved a revised business plan, slashing its previous $98.5 billion estimate by nearly a third to $68.4 billion, with much of the savings coming from “blended infrastructure.” Translation: rather than construct new track for the entire route, the CHSRA’s revised plan now includes upgrades to existing track at the San Francisco and Los Angeles ends of the route.

Despite these budget reductions, the California Legislative Analyst’s office recommended that the California Legislature not approve Governor Brown’s proposals for $5.9 billion in additional funding for the project, including $2.6 billion in bond funds and $3.3 billion in matching funds from the federal government. The Legislative Analyst’s recommendation was based in part on the fact that only $11.5 billion in funding has currently been committed, and that about $39 billion of an assumed $42 billion to be funded by the federal government has yet to be secured.

Earlier this year, the CHSRA released the shortlist of design-build companies that will be allowed to bid on the first segment in the Central Valley once the RFP is released. The RFP was scheduled to be released this past March, but while the terms and conditions have been approved, the RFP remains unissued. Since the funding is still in a state of flux, this is not altogether surprising.

The design-build companies can perhaps take heart from one segment of the Legislative Analyst’s report, however. Recognizing that the Legislature might want to approve some funding to keep the project moving, the Legislative Analyst suggested that in that case the Legislature could approve funding for the first contract (estimated at $1.5 to $2 billion) and scheduled for award this December.

As someone who has spent many, many hours of my life on Interstate 5 between those two cities, and waiting in one airport when my flights to the other have been delayed, I will continue to follow this project with more than casual interest. If the final product even comes close to the statutorily mandated 2 hour and 40 minute non-stop between Los Angeles and San Francisco, that would beat my average driving time by more than half, and could be a genuine competitor for me with air travel.