Deadline pressure threatens high-speed rail

Experts warn project may already be running late.

January 22, 2011 

California's high-speed rail project has a tight schedule to keep: It must meet a series of deadlines to keep $2.5 billion in federal money. But some experts say the program already is running late.

Construction of the system is supposed to start in late 2012 or early 2013 and be completed in 2017.

But no detailed environmental reviews have been finished, no property has been acquired and no construction contracts have been awarded.

All of that has to happen before dirt can begin to fly on the first section to be built between Fresno and Bakersfield.

"In my heart of hearts, I don't think the expectations are realistic," said James Moore II, director of the Transportation Engineering program at the University of Southern California. "There will be delays."

Those delays not only would threaten the funding -- they also would postpone the expected bonanza of construction jobs for the Valley well past next year, experts say.

The size and scope of the high-speed rail project's first segment make it perhaps the largest infrastructure effort in the Valley's history. And the clock is ticking.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority's grant agreement with the Federal Railroad Administration requires that environmental studies be completed and certified by September for sections from Merced to Bakersfield.

For the first section to be built between Fresno and Bakersfield, contracts for final engineering and construction must be awarded by September 2012, and construction must be finished by September 2017.

The section would be the initial piece in what is ultimately planned as an 800-mile system linking the state's urban centers with trains capable of speeds up to 220 mph. Service is not likely to begin until 2020 or later, after the system has grown to link Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Even the California High-Speed Rail Authority acknowledges the challenging time frame. "It's certainly optimistic, and it's very tight," said Rachel Wall, the authority's press secretary.

But authority managers say it's a realistic schedule because so much study and analysis already has been done, accelerating after voters approved Proposition 1A in November 2008 to provide $9 billion for high-speed rail.

"We think these Valley sections are well enough along that this is a doable time frame," said Jeff Barker, the authority's deputy executive director.

"We've got some things going on simultaneously, and even giving ourselves some time for delays, we're real comfortable with the time frame."

The federal money is intended to stimulate the economy quickly in the Valley and the state.

But for government bureaucracies that sometimes move at a glacial pace, "quickly" is a relative term -- and that is what worries observers.

Detailed planning

The construction itself would be a formidable task. But there is much to do even before the first shovel pierces the ground.

The first hard deadline for the federal funds involves environmental-impact reports, or EIRs, detailing the potential effects of the train system on Valley communities, farms and wildlands. Final versions of those reports must be certified by the end of September.

Consultants have been working on the Valley EIRs for more than a year, and the authority plans to issue drafts in February for 45 days of public comment and debate.

That is about two months later than what the authority set as its target last year. Consultants will then make revisions or come up with responses based on those comments, before final versions are opened for public comment.

Authority official Barker thinks seven or eight months is plenty of time for the environmental process, but Moore isn't sure.

"Those EIRs are going to raise a lot of questions," he said. "If that's a necessary condition for proceeding, that could hold things up."

The EIRs also will form the basis for the rail authority's final selection of a route for the tracks between Fresno and Bakersfield.

Until that happens, the authority cannot seek or award bids for construction or even start buying the land it needs for the tracks.

Engineers and planners also are working on the preliminary design for the system.

By the time the authority expects to start soliciting bids from contractors -- late this year or in early 2012 -- this work is expected to be at least 30% complete.

Contractors would complete the design and build the system. Under the federal grant agreement, those design-build contracts must be awarded by September 2012.

Along the way, the state must submit detailed plans to federal officials for how right of way will be acquired, how roads and utilities will be moved, and how hazardous materials will be handled.

But all of that still depends on funding, which is not yet pinned down and faces its own obstacles.

Money matters

Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature must agree to allocate money from Prop. 1A to match the federal funds. Barker said the authority will seek its first installments of money in the state's 2012-13 budget.

Prop. 1A requires that an independent panel of transportation and rail experts approve budget requests before any bonds are sold.

The same panel late last year issued a report questioning the authority's lack of a detailed financing and income plan, lack of a business model for operating and managing the system, and lack of staffing to oversee the project.

Some legislators also have criticized the authority's preliminary estimates of revenues and ridership as "unrealistic." One example: a projection of as many as 102,700 riders daily on the statewide system, including 4,500 boardings daily in Fresno.

"Obviously there are challenges and questions, and the onus is on us to address those questions," Barker said. "By the time we bring our budget request, we'll have to have all these questions answered."

Should the Legislature reject the budget request, "that would be saying, 'No, we don't want high-speed rail,' " Barker added. "That would be telling the federal government to take back the $2.5 billion and saying we don't want it."

If the armful of "ifs" are accomplished -- if the rail authority meets the deadline for environmental review, if it gets money from the Legislature, and if it awards construction contracts in time -- then it's on to the dirty work.

Shovels in the ground

The rail authority suggests that building the segments between Merced and Bakersfield will create as many as 80,000 temporary construction jobs between 2012 and 2017.

But because only 30% of the engineering is expected to be completed on the project by the time contracts are awarded next year, much work will remain on the drawing board until perhaps 2013 and 2014.

"We won't have 10,000 hard hats on the ground laying rail in September 2012," said Barker. "Final engineering will be the first phase of work being done."

The first work that the public would see is likely to be land acquisition, clearing property and demolishing structures in the path of the tracks, said John Popoff, an engineer on the authority's management team.

According to the grant agreement between state and federal rail officials, that work could start in the fall of 2012 and is expected to continue through 2014.

Throughout the construction period, roads and other railroad tracks would be moved to avoid interference with the dedicated high-speed rail tracks.

Work on the rail line itself would involve building track bed and miles of elevated platforms through Fresno and other areas, as well as bridges, overcrossings, underpasses and, finally, the steel rails.

Experts disagree on whether the rail authority can build up to 115 miles of track in time to meet the federal deadline of September 2017.

"I believe this project will be difficult to build," said USC's Moore. "Something like this takes a considerable amount of time to build, even with the resources in place."

"And we don't have the resources in place," Moore added.

But a construction management professor at California State University, Fresno, expressed more confidence.

"There are a tremendous number of issues that are going to pop up," acknowledged Lloyd Crask, an assistant professor with the Lyles School of Engineering at Fresno State.

"But I think five years as a construction period will be no problem for the industry."

If the prescribed work is completed by 2017, more work would still remain.

The Valley project does not include electrification -- the overhead contact lines that will provide power to the all-electric trains -- nor does it include systems for communication and signal controls; the actual locomotives and passenger cars; and maintenance facilities.

Those necessary components must wait until additional federal money or investments from private or outside industry interests become available.

The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6319.

The Fresno Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service