Basics of the report
• A new high-speed rail report to legislators trumpets Fresno groundbreaking and progress on contracts.
• Lawsuits, financing and the slow pace of land acquisition are identified as continuing risks to the statewide project.
• Despite falling behind on environmental assessments, the agency maintains that it plans to begin Merced-Burbank operations in 2022 and San Francisco-Los Angeles runs in 2028.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority issued a progress report to state legislators this week describing progress made in recent months, acknowledging ongoing hurdles and providing an update on the cost and schedule of California’s proposed bullet train.
Among the chief milestones touted by authority CEO Jeff Morales in the March 1 report to the Legislature was the January groundbreaking at the site of a future high-speed rail station in downtown Fresno to mark the ceremonial start of construction on the first 29-mile stretch of the 520-mile route. Other accomplishments since the last state-mandated report in November include:
• Awarding a contract for $1.37 million to a construction consortium to design and build the second segment of the rail route from the south end of Fresno to the Tulare-Kern county line.
• Starting the process to solicit contractors interested in building the third construction section from the Tulare-Kern county line to the northwestern edge of Bakersfield.
• Issuing a draft solicitation to gain manufacturers’ feedback on the bidding process to build the high-speed electric trains needed to operate on the system. A formal request for bids for train manufacture and maintenance facilities is expected later this spring and a winning bid could be chosen in 2016.
• Seeking proposals for a “rail delivery partner,” an overall program management consultant to help the authority steer the statewide rail project through the completion of construction. It represents a transition in direction from the planning management role done byParsons Brinckerhoff
, which has been the rail authority’s lead consultant since 2006. By the time the current Parsons Brinckerhoff contract expires in June, the authority expects to have paid the company almost $470 million.
• Settling a pair of lawsuits filed under the California Environmental Quality Act — one by the city of Bakersfield and another by Southern California development firm Coffee-Brimhall LLC. The suits were filed over the authority’s approval last year of its Fresno-Bakersfield route and certification of an environmental-impact report for the Fresno-Bakersfield rail segment.
The report also pointed out continuing challenges, including a 2011 Kings County lawsuit alleging that the authority’s plans cannot operationally comply with the requirements of Proposition 1A. Prop. 1A, a $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond measure approved by California voters, included provisions that included requiring that high-speed trains ultimately be able to make a nonstop trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours 40 minutes and that the system be able to cover its operating costs without any public subsidy.
Other potential risks include five additional CEQA lawsuits over the Fresno-Bakersfield rail segment, and the slow pace of acquiring property needed for right of way in its first construction segment from Fresno to Madera. The report stated that the authority has delivered 105 of the 380 parcels to its contractor for the first 24-mile stretch between downtown Fresno and northeast Madera, but the agency needs more than 1,300 parcels for its 120-mile “backbone” from Merced to Bakersfield.
And the report also identifies funding, or the lack thereof, as a lingering concern for the $68 billion project. To date, the authority has grant agreements with the Federal Railroad Administration totaling about $3.5 billion in federal stimulus and rail transportation funds, to be matched by about $2.6 billion in money from Prop. 1A.
“While the Central Valley civil infrastructure is fully funded, there remain funding risks related to meeting the administrative requirements for full and timely receipt of the state and federal funding already identified” for the Valley sections, the report states. More than $2.2 billion in federal stimulus money for high-speed rail construction in the Valley, for example, must be completely exhausted by the fall of 2017. That’s a challenging deadline considering that construction is just now beginning on the Fresno-Madera segment; while the authority has chosen its contractor for the next 65 miles south of Fresno, no contract has been signed yet.
The report’s update on the overall program schedule also points to slower-than-expected progress in completing the environmental assessments needed before construction can begin on any future segments of the rail project toward Southern California and the Bay Area. To date, the only segments for which environmental certification has been done are the Merced-Fresno and Fresno-Bakersfield routes. In 2010, when the federal government announced that it was providing stimulus and transportation funds to California for high-speed rail, environmental work was anticipated to be done by late 2014 for all of the other proposed segments of the 520-mile Phase 1:
• Palmdale-Los Angeles, October 2013.
• San Jose-Merced, December 2013.
• Bakersfield-Palmdale, February 2014.
• San Francisco-San Jose, December 2014.
• Los Angeles-Anaheim, December 2014.
Now none of those environmental certifications are expected before 2017.
Still, the authority anticipates that if it can find the money it needs, the initial 300-mile operating segment for carrying passengers between Merced and Burbank in the San Fernando Valley can be up and running in 2022, and that a system capable of providing a nonstop trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles can be in place in 2028.