California high-speed rail cost jumps to $128B

Dive Brief:

  • California’s high-speed rail project woes continue to pile up as cost estimates burst past original figures and the target date for service shifts further out. The new total leaves a funding gap of more than $100 billion.
  • The price tag for the rail system has risen to $128 billion, according to a California High Speed Rail Authority project update report — a nearly 22% uptick from the previous figure of $105 billion from last year and a far cry from the $33 billion cost voters approved in 2008. The latest increases are due to “inflation/escalation, enhanced scope definition and greater contingency for risk,” per the report.
  • The target date for the opening of the line between Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield, California, may shift out from a solid 2030 marker to a flexible time frame of 2030-2033, according to Brian P. Kelly, the rail authority’s CEO.

Dive Insight:

The entire project, when completed, is expected to span 500 miles and carry passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco. However, local outlet KCRA3 reported that there is no specific timetable for this goal as of yet.

The rail authority’s next goal is to finish the 119-mile Central Valley line currently under construction by 2028, per the report, and its “highest priority” is to extend that line to the full 171-mile Merced-Bakersfield segment and start passenger service by 2030-2033. Construction has been held up because of difficulty relocating utilities and getting permissions, but the report said those problems are close to being solved and the authority has 96% of the right-of-way needed to build the line. 

The rail authority is pushing for stabilized funding over the lifetime of the project, particularly after the 2030 target date. Kelly, in his introductory letter, called out the state for its lack of documented funding and cited the efforts other countries go through to make transit megaprojects work.

“At home, we need an answer on how this project will be funded after 2030. Megaprojects that last for decades need long-term, stable funding. Every country around the world that has built high-speed rail has dedicated billions of dollars over several decades to see it through. We don’t have one penny of state support for this project identified after 2030,” Kelly wrote in the report.

The issue mirrors a larger trend of American rail projects facing issues that European counterparts generally don’t. A 2021 Eno Center for Transportation study found that U.S. rail projects tend to take longer and cost more than European counterparts, though Britain’s high-profile HS2 parallels California’s project in its ballooning costs and delays

The reasons for the cost and time burdens are numerous, the Eno report said. U.S. public transit agencies rarely have the structure, authority or experience to deliver a major transit construction project, which requires support from local jurisdictions, the ability to acquire land as necessary, secure local permits to close streets and relocate utilities as well as flexibility to hire top talent to lead the project, according to Eno.

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