Central Valley newspapers last week ran renderings of “sleek and modern” bullet train stations envisioned by California’s High-Speed Rail Authority for the system’s first leg, Bakersfield to Merced. Fresno’s stunning station looks like a spaceport.
Truth is, though, it is unclear if the Golden State’s troubled high-speed rail project is a game changer or pipe dream. When, if ever, it will reach Stockton is also beyond your Magic 8 Ball’s mystical vision.
“Progress continues across the 171 miles under construction and development in the Central Valley,” says the rail authority’s website, clearly loath to add modifiers like “grinding” or “tortured” to the word “progress.”
But that’s how it’s been. Voters in 2008 approved Proposition 1A and its plans for a publicly funded high-speed rail system that would whiz between California’s major population centers at speeds up to 220 miles per hour. The system would be completed by 2020, cost — one can’t say “only” — $33 billion, and require no subsidy.
Despite the astronomical cost, it seemed like a good idea. A California idea, ahead of the curve, a bullet train could reduce reliance on freeways and airports, cut carbon emissions, and gallop between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2 hours 40 minutes.
Stocktonians could zip down to Disneyland in under three hours. You could see Mickey on a day trip.
More importantly, were high-speed rail to cross the Altamont, it would strengthen the link between Stockton and Silicon Valley in a way potentially transformative to Stockton’s economy; the bullet train could be a brick-and-mortar expression of California’s progressivism, uplifting a struggling region.
It hasn’t happened. It may never.
Fifteen years later, work is plodding along on the first segment, a 119-mile Central Valley line from Madera to Shafter, 20 miles north of Bakersfield: the lion’s share of the 171-mile Bakersfield-to-Merced project with a squishy completion date of 2030-2033.
Thanks to atrociously ballooning costs, this segment is projected to cost $35.3 billion, according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office — more than the entire system’s initial price tag.
And there’s a $10 billion “funding gap” on the segment, the LAO says.
“To the extent the Legislature is still committed to completing the Merced-to-Bakersfield segment, it will likely need to identify billions of dollars of additional funding within the next few years…” the LAO wrote.
The total bullet train price tag has soared to a staggering $128 billion, a far cry from the $33 billion voters approved.
The total “funding gap” is $100 billion. The rail authority does not have the money to build out the system, does not know where it may get it, and may never.
Quentin Kopp, the former rail authority chairman who once tut-tutted me for even suggesting the line was anything short of an inevitable success, last year said of the bullet train: “It is a loser.”
What happened? Nothing but problems and errors.
The rail authority inked construction contracts before acquiring the land to build on. Well-heeled south-valley farmers fought eminent domain in court. Contractors then sued over delays. Environmental reviews slowed progress.
Meanwhile the rail authority board overruled staff recommendations and veered the line off the most efficient routes, at extra cost.
For example, French engineering firm Setec Ferroviaire, which worked on France’s high-speed rail system and consults on bullet trains worldwide, recommended the Altamont route. But the rail authority plumped for Pacheco.Even though that route requires miles of tunnels at extra billions in cost.
“Altamont (instead of Pacheco) would have put the second largest city in the state and the tenth largest in the nation, San Jose, off of the main line, while making the route go north, impacting voter mandates on trip times,” said Katta Hules, a spokesperson for the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
Yes, that’s another problem: Prop 1A promised the bullet train would make its trips in certain speedy times: a straight jacket builders could have done without.
The New York Times reported last year that Silicon Valley moguls and the city of San Jose lobbied for the Pacheco route. If so, the rail authority, bowing to political pressure, delivered an economic boon to a rich region at the expense of a poor one.
Hules was conciliatory. “While Stockton is not a direct part of Phase 1, it is in fact the future crossroads between the Bay and Merced, among many other destinations, via both ACE Rail and the (Amtrak) San Joaquins services, before the Pacheco pass is complete,” she said.
Stockton is on the route for Phase 2, she added.
If there ever is a Phase 2.
“Please know we’re acutely aware of the challenges facing so many communities in the Valley,” said Hules. “Our project has had positive economic impacts all over the state already, including in Stockton. … We employ firms and small businesses all over the state including Stockton.”
True, as I wrote here.
Dan McNamara, a project manager for France’s national railroad, which vied for California’s bullet train contract, told the Times that California so bungled the job the French had a Gallic snit fit and left.
“They told the state they were leaving for North Africa, which was less politically dysfunctional,” McNamara said. “They went to Morocco and helped them build a rail system.”
Morocco launched its bullet train in 2018.
Ironically, Bakersfield, the capital of the red state within the blue state of California, which fought to kill the bullet train, causing billions in delays, is slated to enjoy its benefits. There is no date for the system to reach Stockton.
“Our timeframes outside of the Central Valley are all contingent on federal funding,” said Ramiro Diaz, another rail authority spokesperson.
Translation: We’ll tell you when we get the money, if ever.
“If policy makers choose to deliver high-speed rail beyond the Central Valley, funding commitments for high-speed rail will have to be permanent and substantial at both the federal and state level, as was the case starting in the 1950s for highways,” Brian P. Kelly, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, wrote in the 2023 project update report.
Currently, using cap-and-trade auction proceeds, California pays 80% and Uncle Sam 20% — a reversal of highway funding in which the feds pay the 80%. Those percentages must flip for the project to have a chance.
Especially since California’s $31.5 billion budget deficit keeps heading north.
Plus, ridership projections have dropped sharply owing to the leveling of California’s population growth, the Covid-19 recession, and the work-from-home trend.
It’s not all grim.
· The legislature created an inspector general for the project to ensure its efficiency and integrity.
· The project employs over 1,000 workers daily at construction sites.
· The tortuous right-of-way acquisition for the Merced-to-Bakersfield project is 96% complete.
· To date the Authority says the project has created an economic output of $16 billion. By completion that figure will rise to $65.1 billion.
It could have been so sweet. Practically flying over the Altamont, strengthening ties to Silicon Valley, watching Stockton’s GDP increase; swiftly crossing the Golden State while reducing air pollution. Like the builder-hero days when California built the world-class Central Valley Project or Interstate 5.
Given all the setbacks, it may surprise you that I still believe in high-speed rail. California, not so much.
Michael Fitzgerald is an investigative news columnist for Stocktonia. His column usually runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. email: firstname.lastname@example.org