Will High Speed Rail Ever Happen in California? How HSR Started and How It’s Going

Nearly 40 years after the first funds for high speed rail in California were approved, construction has not been completed on a single line. When will the state get its bullet train?

PUBLISHED MAR 14, 2022 2:44 P.M.
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After nearly four decades, California has still failed to complete a single high speed rail line.

After nearly four decades, California has still failed to complete a single high speed rail line.   Monica Volpin / Pixabay   Pixabay License

High speed rail has yet to come to California, despite decades of effort. But things didn’t have to be that way. The world's first high speed rail project was unveiled in 1964, as Japan was reentering the world after the U.S occupation that followed the Second World War. On October 1, two trains pulled into stations in Japan’s two largest cities—Tokyo and Osaka.

The trip by rail between the two metropolises had until that day consumed a grueling seven hours. Each train cut that journey almost in half, arriving in just four hours, precisely on schedule. The trains were the Hikari Shinkansen—bullet trains. The era of high speed rail travel had begun.

Japan had been planning to create a high-speed rail system since the 1930s, even before the country launched the war that became World War II. Ground was finally broken in 1959, and a mere five years later the first Hikari Shinkansen arrived.

4 Decades of California High Speed Rail Dreaming

In California, the effort to create a high speed rail system has been grinding away for at least 40 years. In 1982, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 3647, intended to raise $1.25 billion in bond issues to fund a high speed train that would make the trip from Los Angeles to San Diego in 59 minutes. On an Amtrak, the commute runs a little short of three hours.

The entire project was supposed to cost $3.1 billion, with funds from a private company, the American High Speed Rail Corporation (AHSRC), providing the balance. The project was beset by controversy from the outset, and AHSRC failed to raise any more than half of the $50 million it needed to complete planning for the bullet train. The project was trashed before the end of 1984.

But nearly four decades later, the California dream of high speed rail lives on.

California High Speed Rail Breaks Ground

On Jan. 6, 2015, Brown—then four years into his second turn in the governor’s mansion—presided over a ceremony in Fresno to break ground on the first segment of high speed rail track in California, and for that matter, anywhere in the United States. Japan by then had nine shinkansen lines (with more in the works), making travel from almost any point within that country to any other quick and efficient. 

The first segment of California high speed rail infrastructure, a track that would run from the Central Valley to the Bay Area, was scheduled to run its first trains in 2025, a full decade after the ceremonial groundbreaking. Four years later, the entire “Phase One” of California high speed rail was supposed to be complete, connecting San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center (now called Salesforce Transit Center) with Union Station in Los Angeles in a trip of only two hours and 40 minutes.

Those deadlines have since been pushed back considerably. A 171-mile high speed rail line running from Bakersfield to Merced is currently expected to go operational in 2028 or 2029. The Los Angeles-San Francisco train is now, perhaps dubiously, projected to start carrying passengers in 2033.

Price Tag Now Tops $100 Billion and Climbing

In other words, California is not Japan—the pace of the state’s high speed rail project has been excruciating. The Fresno groundbreaking did not take place until more than six years after voters approved Proposition 1A in 2008, a measure that authorized the state to issue $9.95 billion in bonds, $9 billion of which was earmarked for construction of the system connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco. 

That $9 billion is but a tiny fraction of the cash it will take to complete the project. As recently as February 2022, the California High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA)—the agency created by the legislature in 1996 to oversee the high speed rail project—published a business plan that showed the total cost coming in at $105 billion.

That plan came less than a year after the previous draft, which itself had been delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, put the cost at an even $100 billion. The year before that, in a draft that came out just weeks before the pandemic hit, the HSRA projected a price tag of $80.3 billion.

When voters went to the polls in 2008 to approve the High Speed Rail Bond Measure, the HSRA set the full cost of the North-South line at $33 billion. Even accounting for inflation—$33 billion in 2008 is equivalent to about $44 billion in 2022—costs of the high speed rail project have bloated beyond recognition. According to a Los Angeles Times report in August of 2018, the project consumed $3.1 million per day over the previous year. The HSRA estimated that spending would have to be pumped up ninefold, to $27 million per day, to meet its deadlines.

Where Does All This Money Come From?

It’s been 14 years since voters, by a comfortable 53 to 47-percent margin, approved the $9.95 billion HSR bond issue and more than 40 percent of those funds remain unused. In his proposed 2022-2023 budget, Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to spend the final $4.2 billion on completing the 171-mile stretch of track that runs through the Central Valley, from Bakersfield to Merced—specifically, a 119-mile strip that runs straight through downtown Fresno.

But Democratic lawmakers have pushed back, saying that the money is better spent on building out the system in more densely populated areas—the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

“The project is by all objective measures in distress,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Democrat from Los Angeles County, told the New York Times in March 2022. “Connecting the two largest urban areas in the state is the best thing we can do from an environmental standpoint and an economic development standpoint. To link two cities in the Central Valley would doom the project.”

A poll commissioned by the Assembly Democrats and obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle showed that 42 percent of Californians want the state to stop building the high speed rail system, while 41 percent want it to continue. There’s a pronounced partisan divide, however. Among Republicans, 71 percent say to stop the project, while only 29 percent of Democrats say it should be ended.

In all, the HSRA says, it has “secured approximately one-third of the funds needed to complete the current estimated cost of the system.” But the word “approximately” is doing a lot of work there, because the HSRA says that its current total is at most $23 billion. That money is all going into the Central Valley section of the full, 500-mile San Francisco to Los Angeles system.

The largest source of those funds has been the state’s cap-and-trade program. The environmental program charges companies based on the amount of greenhouse gasses they emit into the atmosphere. In 2014, the legislature earmarked 25 percent of the cap-and-trade revenue for the high speed rail program, meaning that the project receives a stream of funding every year, at least until 2030, when the cap-and-trade program is set to phase out.

The HSRA has also received money from the federal government. The ​​American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, known back then as the “stimulus package,” included $2.5 billion for California’s high speed rail project, and Congress pushed another $929 million the HSRA’s way the following year.

To complete the entire San Francisco-Los Angeles route, the agency says it “continues to seek additional funding.”

Newsom Lukewarm on HSR, at Best

His two predecessors, Brown and Arnold Schwarznegger, hoped to make high speed rail their signature project, but Newsom has largely reversed course. In his 2019 State of the State address, he appeared to pull the plug on the ambitious plan approved by voters 11 years earlier.

“The project as planned would cost too much and take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency. Right now there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego let alone from San Francisco to L.A.,” Newsom said in the speech.

With the Trump administration still in office, however, Newsom picked the wrong time to announce that he was cutting the high speed rail plan in half. Shortly after Newsom’s speech, Trump posted a statement on Twitter claiming that California now owed the feds $3.5 billion (approximately the total allocated by Congress in 2009 and 2010)  and declaring, “We want that money back now.” Trump also blasted the project as “a ‘green’ disaster.”

Trump was wrong—but only because Newsom did not walk away from high speed rail altogether. The governor remained committed to completing the Central Valley segment. In his 2019 speech, Newsom went so far as to say that “the voters set aside the money for this purpose,” which was only half true. The 2008 ballot measure quite clearly specified a San Francisco to Los Angeles project.

Because the Central Valley segment would proceed, Sacramento did not owe any money to Washington—at least not the initial $2.5 billion. The second outlay, $929 million, had yet to be transmitted from the feds to the state. Three months after Newsom’s State of the State speech, the Trump administration canceled those funds claiming that California “repeatedly failed to comply” with the terms of its agreement with the feds, and had "failed to make reasonable progress on the project."

Biden Reinstates Funds Withheld by Trump

California sued, stating that the U.S. Transportation Department had no authority to cancel the funds, but the issue became moot when Trump’s successor, Pres. Joe Biden, restored the $929 million of funding in June of 2021. Biden supports high speed rail and has stated his goal of ensuring that the U.S. “has the cleanest, safest, and fastest rail system in the world.”

In November, 2021, Biden signed a bipartisan infrastructure bill that would pump $1 trillion into a multitude of projects across the country. But not for high speed rail, in California or anywhere else. The bill was expected to pour a substantial, albeit uncertain amount into upgrading existing passenger and freight train service, mostly on the East Coast.

Another infrastructure bill, worth $2 trillion and labeled “Build Back Better,” would have contained $10 billion for high speed rail development, and about $4 billion of that was expected to go to California. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, whose vote is needed to pass it, has famously declared that bill “dead.”

Why All the Delays and Added Costs?

With seemingly endless delays, funding struggles, and other issues including a pandemic grabbing public attention, it’s fair to wonder whether California’s high speed rail project still exists. It most definitely does. The HSRA’s Interactive Construction Map shows 35 active construction sites up and down the length of the Central Valley. 

The projects have brought more than 6,000 jobs to the region, on at least a temporary basis, with the HSRA reaching into economically disadvantaged communities to put people to work. One local business leader told the site StreetsBlog that the high speed rail project “pretty much saved the valley.”

As of September 2021, there were 866 daily workers employed on the projects, the Sacramento Bee reported. And yet, by the end of 2021, the HSRA had failed to acquire all of the land needed to run the high speed rail track through the Central Valley. According to a report by the Fresno Bee, by December the authority had acquired 1,999 of the 2,267 land parcels needed for the 119-mile segment scheduled to be completed first—before even extending the track to Bakersfield and Merced. The land-acquisition program began eight years earlier.

A letter to the HSRA from one of the project’s many construction contractors obtained in 2021 by the Los Angeles Times stated that the sporadic and erratic pattern of land acquisition would cause another delay of at least two years, and that workers had to be continually laid off and rehired then laid off again as the parcels were acquired piecemeal.

But according to a separate Times report, that very contractor—the Spanish firm Dragados—is partly responsible for delays and cost overruns. The HSRA awarded a contract to the firm in 2014 based on its low bid, which made several alterations to the authority’s original design for an attractive savings of $300 million. According to the Times report, the company’s original changes have since been abandoned “and have contributed to more than $800 million in cost overruns on the Kings County segment.” The new price tag is a hike of 62 percent over the original contract.

The HSRA is not without blame in the Dragados case, either. The Times reported that the authority gave out the contract “without first completing a scientific assessment of how sinking land in the area—a result of decades of excess groundwater pumping—could affect the rail route.” As a result, the authority must shell out millions of extra dollars to raise track above the sagging ground.

A 2019 report by the nonpartisan think tank Eno Center for Transportation deemed California’s high speed rail program a “failure” and identified seven specific “worst practices” that it said had doomed the project. First on that list of seven blunders was the 2008 ballot initiative itself. By going the ballot route, the state locked the project into the specifications set down in Prop 1A. Laws passed by ballot initiative cannot be altered by the legislature.

“This meant that the project could not evolve to fit budgetary and other realistic constraints without inviting lawsuits,” the report said.

Will California ever be able to meet the requirements set down in the voter-passed law? That, the Eno report diplomatically stated, is “uncertain.”

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