SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – A fundamental new debate has emerged in the battle over the proposed high-speed train in California that could again significantly reduce the troubled effort: should trains even be at high speed when the system will be launched?
It’s a conversation State Assembly Democrats want to have in the midst of negotiations over whether or not to release roughly $ 4 billion in bonds for the project. The California High-Speed Rail Authority has said it needs the money to continue construction beyond next summer. Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom has included it in his state budget, but negotiations between his administration and the legislature have stalled. They hope to reach an agreement when the legislature returns to session in January.
This is the latest setback for the project, which was originally slated to cost $ 33 billion and was completed last year. Today, the vision of commuting between Los Angeles and San Francisco in less than three hours is a distant dream. The first stage of the motorable track, connecting two towns in the Central Valley, won’t start until at least 2029, and project costs have climbed to $ 98 billion.
Little political will appears to exist to either kill the project outright or give it more resources, leaving construction to proceed without a long-term plan.
At the center of the latest dispute is the timeline for electrification of the line, which rail officials say is a necessity to make the high-speed train – the whole idea of the project that voters were sold on. They want to contract next year with a company to design and build an electrified track and system and maintain it for 30 years, effectively locking the state in for the long haul.
Current plans call for the first passable stopover to be from Bakersfield to Merced, where passengers could ideally hop on another transit line to get to the San Francisco Bay Area by a detour. Rail authorities and local transport agencies plan to team up to create a single station in Merced, where passengers could get off the high-speed train and take another system, but the construction of this one is not entirely funded.
That prompted Democratic MK Laura Friedman, chair of the transport committee and chief funding negotiator, to question whether it made sense to completely electrify the line right away. She thinks the authority’s money could be better spent making sure there is only one station in Merced. This would ensure that passengers can get to coastal employment centers from the Central Valley, even if it is a diesel train. The electrification heard could be finished later if there is more money.
“I’m not saying it’s an optimal solution, but I think people need to be honest about what we have the money to do right now,” Friedman said.
High-speed train officials and supporters say running anything less than an electrified train goes against what voters approved and would not bring the benefits of clean energy.
“How does that show that you’ve made a good investment in infrastructure if you continue to use the same equipment that we use today, at relatively similar speeds? Said Dan Leavitt, head of regional initiatives for the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, Altamont Corridor Express and San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, all of which are in partnership with the bullet train.
The $ 4.2 billion in bonds that Silver Rail officials seek to access are the last of the $ 10 billion voters created in 2008, and some lawmakers are reluctant to give it up all at once.
Friedman has offered to release $ 2.5 billion now and force rail authorities to come back for approval before signing a track and systems contract.
She wants more of the bullet train money, though her proposal doesn’t say how much, for projects in the Los Angeles area she represents. The state Senate did not share any spending proposals.
Newsom’s administration wants electrification.
“We believe the days of slow diesel-emitting trains are over, and we remain committed to a future of transportation that moves people quickly and does so without further polluting our environment,” spokesman Daniel Lopez said in a statement. .
How to approach bond money and the conditions attached to it mark a critical decision point for the future of the project, said Lou Thompson, chair of the rail project’s peer review group, which independently assesses financing plans.
“If we are going to build the whole system as required (the ballot initiative), then a Bakersfield to Merced high speed rail line is a perfectly valid part of the system,” he said. “If we are not going to complete the entire system, I think you would give long and serious thought to the electrification of the fair line from Merced to Bakersfield.”
The ambitious project has been closely watched nationally as a test of whether the United States can move away from its automotive culture and catch up with other nations on the bullet train. Supporters say the completed project would dramatically change the way people travel, while reducing carbon emissions. Critics say this is a taxpayer funded mess.
“The idea of a bullet train has gotten a little toxic because of the California project,” said Ethan Elkind, a transit project expert at the University of California at Berkeley.
In some ways, the project was set up to fail when voters were given a base cost estimate for the project. Later, President Barack Obama’s administration conditioned federal funding on the start of construction in the Central Valley, he said.
Elkind said the project is still viable, but if not electrified, California’s ability to compete for money if Congress passes President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, which includes dozens of billion dollars for rail projects.
“The federal government is going to say, ‘Look, California chose not to use the bullet train.’ This is the message he is going to send, “he said.
The project just recovered $ 1 billion in federal money that President Donald Trump’s administration revoked, and the new contract specifically mentions an electrified train. Democratic Senators Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein in July urged lawmakers to release money from bonds, especially with new federal dollars at stake.
“Now is not the time for California to withdraw from its commitment to high-speed rail,” they warned.
The project has already spent $ 2.5 billion in federal funds and received more than $ 3.7 billion from the California auction program for carbon pollution credits, known as cap and trade. This program is expected to end in 2030.
Electrified or not, the project is still short of tens of billions of dollars – one of the reasons given by railway officials for building the project in pieces.
“We don’t have a lot of money and we never have it,” said Melissa Figueroa, spokesperson for the railway authority.