High-Speed Rail

High-speed rail consultant costs near $600 million even before construction starts

The latest accounting by the California High-Speed Rail Authority to state lawmakers indicates that the agency has spent almost $600 million on engineering and environmental consultants -- all without turning a shovelful of dirt on construction.

In the twice-a-year report sent to legislative leaders on Friday, the agency is sticking to its estimated price tag of $68.3 billion to build its San Francisco-to-Los Angeles bullet-train line. The agency earlier this year approved a $987 million contract with a team of contractors to design and build the first 29-mile stretch of the line from Madera through Fresno.

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But while contractors Tutor Perini Corp., Zachry Construction and Parsons Corp. have been given a green light for engineering and other pre-construction activities, the authority has offered no estimate of when ground may be broken .

The rail authority is required to file its progress reports every March 1 and Nov. 15 under the terms of the Legislature's 2012 budget appropriation of money for the agency.

"The authority has made significant progress in its mission to plan, design, build and operate the nation's first high-speed rail system as part of the statewide rail modernization program," agency CEO Jeff Morales wrote in the report.

The report details a raft of administrative advances, including filling all of its executive management positions, developing a risk-management plan, issuing a report on greenhouse-gas emissions, and awarding the construction contracts for the Madera-Fresno stretch.

But the report also reveals that significant obstacles remain before the agency can complete its $6 billion "initial construction segment" from Merced to north of Bakersfield using a mix of federal stimulus and transportation funds and state bond money; or even sniff the eventual operation of high-speed trains on its "initial operating segment" through the San Joaquin Valley between Merced and the San Fernando Valley.

Among the most substantial hurdles may be the environmental clearances needed for various sections, including San Francisco-San Jose, San Jose-Merced, Fresno-Bakersfield, Bakersfield-Palmdale, Palmdale-Los Angeles and Los Angeles-Anaheim.

To date, the only section for which the rail authority and the Federal Railroad Administration have certified environmental review is the Merced-Fresno section -- and even that omits the area around Chowchilla, in Madera County, as consultants evaluate options for a junction where the San Jose-Merced rail line would join with the Merced-Fresno line.

The rail authority initially anticipated that all of those environmental certifications for sections between Merced and Los Angeles would be done by early 2014. The project report now indicates that some of those environmental reports won't be done until late 2015 -- more than two years behind schedule.

Those environmental clearances may be critical, given a judge's ruling earlier this year in a lawsuit filed by Kings County and two of its residents. Among the findings in Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny's August ruling was that the authority violated Proposition 1A, the 2008 high-speed rail bond, because the law requires environmental certifications for all of the portions of its Merced-Los Angeles operating segment before commencing construction anywhere on the line. While the rail authority protested that it has not yet undertaken any actual construction work, Kenny is considering what legal remedies to impose on the authority for the violation.

In the meantime, the agency is allowed to spend money on pre-construction work, including almost $980 million worth of consulting contracts that run through the fall of 2018.

To date, the authority reports it has spent $587 million on contracts with consultants for project management, public outreach, preliminary engineering and environmental assessment on various project sections. The largest single contract, valued at $295 million, is a statewide project management agreement with Parsons Brinckerhoff, an American subsidiary of English engineering and construction firm Balfour Beatty. That contract expires in June 2015.