The latest release of the every-other-year business plan by the California High-Speed Rail Authority represents yet another iteration of a project with moving targets for price, schedule and geography.
The rail agency's draft 2018 business plan issued last week offered a sobering look at a project that has been plagued with challenges and skepticism since before 2008, when the state's voters approved Proposition 1A, a $9.95 billion high-speed-rail bond. The bonds are one source of money to help build what was envisioned as a system of electric trains traveling at up to 220 mph to connect the state's northern population centers – San Francisco and Sacramento – with Los Angeles, the Inland Empire and San Diego, all by way of the the San Joaquin Valley cities of Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield.
What was once optimistically pitched as a complete 800-mile program that could be built for about $35 billion and conceivably up and running by as early as 2020 has run headlong into an unrelenting wall of obstacles, including engineering, litigation and politics.
Over time, the cost estimates have ranged from the original rosy $35 billion for 800 miles to a sticker-shock-inducing $98 billion for just the first 520-mile phase from San Francisco to Los Angeles/Anaheim. For the past six years, the estimate for the San Francisco-Los Angeles/Anaheim phase has wobbled in the mid-$60 billion range, with no forecast offered on the price tag for future Phase 2 extensions to Sacramento and San Diego.
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The new plan — the first one produced under the guidance of newly minted Authority CEO Brian Kelly — details the agency's expectations for building 520 miles of Phase 1 for an estimated cost of $77.3 billion. But it also allows that the costs could ultimately land somewhere between $63.2 billion and $98.1 billion.
That wide range of uncertainty is based in part on what's happened in the central and southern San Joaquin Valley, where problems associated with right-of-way acquisition, contract negotiations, construction delays and other factors led earlier this year to a revised cost estimate of $10.6 billion for 119 miles of the route from north of Madera to north of Bakersfield. That's $2.8 billion more than had been forecast in the rail authority's 2016 business plan.
"A lot of bad things have happened, and this has been cumulative," said Roy Hill, a consultant with the British firm WSP who is serving as the rail agency's chief program officer, in January. "The worst-case scenario has happened."
The schedule for potential completion is another major change in the new business plan. In 2012, the authority forecast that it could begin running trains by 2020 for its first operating segment from Merced to the San Fernando Valley, and have the entire San Francisco-Anaheim Phase 1 up and running by 2028.
By 2016, not only had the authority pivoted northward for its first operating segment between Bakersfield and San Jose, but bumped the schedule back three years to 2025, while 2029 was the new target date for Phase 1.
Now, the hope — which will be largely dependent on coming up with money to keep building the system — is to have trains running between Bakersfield and San Jose/San Francisco in 2029, and in 2033 for the entirety of Phase 1. The plan still offers no cost or schedule estimate for the future segments to Sacramento or San Diego.
In the meantime, however, work — and spending — continues both in the Valley and elsewhere in the state. By the end of the current 2017-18 fiscal year in June, the rail authority will have spent more than $5.4 billion statewide over the past 12 years, with the pace of expenditures rising exponentially since the first tangible construction work began in 2013-14 in Fresno and Madera counties.
More than $3.3 billion of that will have been for work in the Valley. The early spending since 2007 was for planning and environmental analysis between Merced and Bakersfield, a process that continues for some sections around Chowchilla and north of Bakersfield. Since 2014, the biggest expenditures have been for purchasing right-of-way property, which has taken far longer than the authority expected, and for a trio of construction contracts.
In what will likely be a highly charged election year, high-speed rail could be one of the major political footballs getting kicked around by candidates who will ultimately decide whether work and spending on the project will continue. Gov. Jerry Brown has been one of the project's biggest boosters and leveraged his support into a series of close legislative successes in the Assembly and state Senate. But Brown will be out of office after this year, leaving it to the next governor to determine if it should move forward.
Additionally, the Assembly and Senate control the state's purse strings. Because Brown's margins of victory on several key measures to advance the rail project have been so narrow in recent years, even subtle changes in the makeup of the Legislature could also swing the fate of the rail system.