California’s ambitious high-speed rail train continues to face tough questions over its viability even as the agency overseeing the project says it has a plan to deliver service by 2027.
A decade after California voters first approved a $10 billion bond measure to help fund a bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, some lawmakers said the project has failed to live up to its promise.
“This project is becoming the poster child for mismanagement and runs the risk of diminishing public perception of much needed passenger rail projects nationwide,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican from California’s Central Valley and chairman of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.
The subcommittee met Thursday in Sacramento for a field hearing at which some members criticized the project’s budget increases and construction delays.
“It just continues to confound me why we would keep going on this,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richland, Calif.
The California High Speed Rail Authority, the agency overseeing the project, anticipates completing 224 miles from San Francisco to Bakersfield by 2027 and an estimated total project cost of $77.3 billion.
The project was originally estimated at $33 billion with a 2020 completion date.
Brian Kelly, who took over in January as chief executive of the authority, said a new business plan released in March offers more realistic and transparent estimates for project delivery and costs.
He acknowledged the project faces constraints, including funding issues, but said that it has made progress in beginning construction in the Central Valley portion where it has employed 2,000 workers.
“It’s the most transformative project I’ve seen in 25 years of working in transportation in the state,” he said. “It’s capable of delivering mobility, economic and environmental objectives.”
Louis Thompson, chairman of the California High Speed Rail Peer Review Group, said the project’s uncertain financing remains its biggest challenge.
“The key problem for the authority and the project is having a stable and reliable financing network and they don’t have that now,” he said.
The project was originally envisioned to use bond financing for a third of the cost, supplemented by federal monies and private investment.
In addition to bond funding and the federal grant, the project has secured $750 million a year through California’s cap-and-trade program, through which companies buy credits to release greenhouse gas emissions. That brings the agency at about $21 billion in funding, Kelly said.
“I don’t have the money to do everything so I have to do it in parts,” he said, explaining the rationale for the authority’s plan to first open a Central Valley segment.
Private investors are averse to risk and are unlikely to come in until they see revenues, Kelly said.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, compared the project to the building of the federal highway system under President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. Just as the highway system was important for building the country’s economy, a high-speed rail system could transform housing and employment opportunities in a large part of the state, she said.
“I’m mindful that it’s hard to do big things and it’s easy to criticize,” she said.
Lofgren questioned what kind of transportation improvements would be needed to accomplish the same goals as the bullet train.
Kelly said the project is the equivalent of building 4300 highway lanes and expanding every airport in the state — a cost of about $150 billion.
“There’s no other project that can reduce travel times like this one,” he said.