SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — California’s reworked plan for a high-speed train estimates an $18.3 billion price tag to complete 171 miles (275 kilometres) of track in the Central Valley by 2028, nearly a decade later than the initial estimate for a much longer Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line.
State rail officials issued an update to the delay-plagued project on May 1, offering the first formal look at changes suggested in February by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. Officials had been focused on building a segment from the Central Valley to San Francisco, but had not yet come up with enough money to tunnel through a mountain pass.
Now the focus is shifting to first building a line from Bakersfield to Merced. The update stresses completing the full line is still the ultimate goal, something Newsom wants.
“This policy recommendation is not a Central Valley line instead of Silicon Valley to Central Valley line,” it reads. “It is a Central Valley line first.”
The report does not offer a revised analysis of the timeline and cost for the entire project, slated last year to cost $77 billion and be completed by 2033. However, it does show a cost increase of $1.8 billion to construction that’s already underway to a total of $12.4 billion, roughly double initial projections.
It’s been more than a decade since California voters approved nearly $10 billion in bond funding for the project. Its cost has steadily climbed since.
The update also reveals a train through the Central Valley won’t generate enough money to cover the operations and maintenance costs. That’s a problem for the state, which is bound by the ballot measure to operate a rail line without a subsidy.
Russ Fong, the project’s outgoing chief financial officer, said the state will hire an outside train operator to avoid running afoul of the bond measure. Such a move is likely to prompt lawsuits.
Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson of Fresno, a critic of the project, said he has lost trust in commitments by rail officials.
“They’re making it up as they go along. That’s what I’ve concluded,” he said. “How can we have confidence in what they are going to do in the next 10 years when they have failed to meet every single benchmark over the last 10 years?”
Newsom addressed the project’s longstanding problems earlier this year.
“Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to LA. I wish there were,” he said. “However, we do have the capacity to complete a high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield.”
Money for the project comes from the bond, the federal government and revenue from a state program that charges polluters to emit greenhouse gases. The Trump administration has threatened to revoke the $3.5 billion in federal money because of the project’s delays, but a final decision has not been made. Rail officials say they have enough money to complete the line if the state keeps that federal money and if roughly $4 billion left in bond money is released.
Brian Kelly, the project’s chief executive officer, said the report demonstrates a clear path forward.
“This approach will help us ultimately connect a revitalized Central Valley to the Bay Area and Southern California,” he said in a statement.
There are still questions for rail officials to answer about the new Merced to Bakersfield line, such as where the station will be located in Merced, how many people are expected to ride the train and how it will work alongside existing bus and train services. The costs and timeline of the project could change again in the next business plan.