Bullet train, moving slowly, hits another bump

An artist's rendering of California's proposed bullet train. (Image: High-Speed Rail Authority)

For more than a decade, California’s bullet train has faced obstacle after obstacle. The latest hurdle: the pandemic.

In 2008, Californian voters passed Proposition 1A to create a statewide high-speed bullet train — a project linking the northern and southern parts of the state that would create jobs, reduce emissions, and simplify traveling throughout California. 

But things have not gone to plan over the last 12 years — the California High-Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) , which is heading the project, has faced fervid criticism for greatly exceeding its budget and blowing deadlines. 

The project, originally estimated at $33 billion, now carries a whopping $80 billion price tag.

The frustration regarding the project’s skyrocketing expenses and sluggish progress has been compounded by the HSRA’s recent response to the pandemic. Last week, the Authority postponed the approval of its 2020 business plan until Dec. 15.

Spokesman Micah Flores said the Authority wanted the postponement to evaluate the pandemic’s effect on its entire operation. 

HSRA will “will conduct enhanced risk analyses to assess the impacts (of the pandemic) and fully understand the effects to program cost, schedule, and revenues,” he said.

The goal is to figure out how COVID-19 affects the project’s funding, construction, time lines, environmental reviews, and other critical issues.

The pandemic has not changed the project’s basic funding, which was obtained in 2008 and 2009 through the  California voter approval of Proposition 1A and the federal government’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, respectively.

But the initial funding only accounts for $12 billion of the $80 billion project — a meager 15% of the latest estimated price tag. 

The remaining other 85% of the project’s money has been hit by the pandemic.

Much of the bullet train’s funding comes from California’s cap-and-trade auctions, at which companies buy, sell and trade allowances that allow them to continue operating as the state ratchets down on greenhouse gas emissions to meet the rules of AB 32, the state’s global warming law. The HSRA regularly receives about 25% of the auction proceeds.

But the most recent auction produced only $25 million in revenue, paling in comparison to the $600 million and $850 million generated at auctions in recent years. 

Meanwhile, the timelines for contracting out the track and system projects, through which the HSRA hires companies and their workers to design, build, and maintain the bullet train, likely will be delayed delayed due to the pandemic.

Longer timelines for contracting workers means slower progress on the project. 

There are delays in obtaining supplies for construction of the railway itself, because the pandemic has forced delays in the supply chains.

Environmental reviews also are forcing slowdowns. 

The bullet train project must follow the requirements of the state’s principal environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. This law requires HSRA to evaluate the impacts of its project on the environment and ease its negative effects. But those evaluations are being delayed — along with other aspects of the HSRA’s operations.

Funding cuts, contract delays and construction supply chain issues have combined to limit writing an environmental review for 2020, which in turn makes writing a comprehensive 2020 business plan very difficult. 

While HSRA officials reassess their position, work on the project will continue, although the pandemic is likely to slow progress.

Critics raise other issues, as well.

In May, the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote that “California’s struggle to build the bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco is a classic case of optimism bias,” and that “with each update, the project is slated to cost more and deliver less than voters were promised in 2008.” Clearly, many are upset by the project’s ballooning costs.

Legislative Analyst Gabriel Petek, the Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal adviser, asserted that the project may require even more money to be completed, and that the HSRA may have overestimated the number of riders it will benefit, particularly in central California. 

Additionally, Assemblyman Jim Frazier (D-Fairfield), the chairman of the Transportation Committee, told the Times that “I have personally lost all confidence in this group to develop and deliver what they promise… from inconsistent cost estimates to impossible program schedules, they provide fictional ridership expectations and exaggerated benefits.” 

The bullet train’s critics argue that the project’s original plan to allocate its remaining funds to the tracks connecting Bakersfield and Merced was a mistake, arguing that ridership has been overestimated and would precipitate financial strife.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon agreed, suggesting that HSRA allocate some of the funds to construction of the railway in the Bay Area and Southern California. 

Flores disagreed, saying there was value in building the railway in the Central Valley and that it would give the area a much-needed economic boost.

The Central Valley “hosts underserved communities for whom additional high-speed rail from Merced to Bakersfield will enhance living and working options. This area has … an increased need for jobs, access to education, access to affordable housing and business opportunities, and greater access to professional services.” 

And even if the HSRA agreed that building on the coast right now would be a smarter decision, they would not be able to quickly switch gears. Before beginning construction in a new region, the HSRA must comply with both state and federal environmental reviews. To do that takes time — and HSRA officials are currently working on it.

The project will be environmentally cleared to build in coastal California by 2022 — if all goes according to to plan. 

Editor’s Note: Lana Schwartz is a Capitol Weekly intern from Vanderbilt University.


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