Calif. state lawmakers are not releasing $4.2 billion in high-speed rail money

Written by Bill Wilson, Editor-in-Chief
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State lawmakers want to see more assurances before releasing $4.2 billion in funds for the high-speed rail project.
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Democratic lawmakers in California are refusing to pass over $4 billion to fund the state’s high-speed rail project that would connect San Francisco to Los Angeles.

The stalemate could last for some time.

Gov. Gavin Newsom asked the state legislature for the money in early 2021. The funding is part of the 2008 bond measure for high-speed rail, and it continues to be held hostage.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has $1.5 billion on hand, but needs the $4.2 billion cash infusion to provide stable planning and to make advance purchases of items like trainsets. Officials cannot even agree on the type of train to order. The Authority is being pushed to consider new battery-operated trains, which could reach 170 mph or higher. The plan for the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles route is for trains to reach 220 mph.

A state-appointed peer review group had mixed feelings about the project in an April letter to legislative leaders. The group felt positive about recent environmental clearances, but raised concern about outdated cost estimates and legislative oversight. Original estimates marked the project at $33 billion and had a completion date set for 2020. Now the cost for the route stands at $105 billion with no deadline in sight. Inflation associated with labor and material costs continues to rise and is not reflected in the most recent price.

Newsom has tried to use financial enhancers to urban centers in an attempt to get the $4.2 billion, but nothing has worked. The governor also unveiled a new “current project” in 2019, endorsing an electrified 171-mile partial operating system between Bakersfield and Merced.

Assembly Democrats, however, are still worried the project will ultimately stall and lead to nowhere. Their plan calls for a delay of the installation of a high-voltage electrical system until tracks in the Central Valley connect to somewhere.

The project is filled with complex issues, like drilling long tunnels near seismic faults. The Bakersfield-to-Los Angeles connection stands at $50 billion and the San Francisco to the Central Valley tie-in at Chowchilla carries a $22 billion price tag.

However, Jeff Denham, former chairman of the House rail subcommittee, said there is “virtually nothing happening in the Central Valley.”

Construction has slowed, and officials say the completion of 119 miles by December 2023 is impossible. They believe completion could happen as early as 2026 and as late as 2030.

Newsom wants the Bakersfield-to-Merced route to be carrying passengers by 2030.

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