California High Speed Rail Project : How far does $1.232 billion get you?

On December 9th, the Federal Railroad Administration awarded the California High Speed Rail Authority another $616 million to extend the train tracks planned for the Central Valley. The terms of this money require California to match the funds with $616 million of its own dollars, bringing the total available to $1.232 billion.

The Authority will hold a special board meeting on December 20th to amend their previous endorsement of the Borden to Corcoran starter route. A staff report posted online in advance of that meeting answers some of the questions  people have been asking.  Link: http://cahighspeedrail.ca.gov/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=9485

Will you extend the line north or south?  The answer is south.  The problem with going north is that there is no certainty until the environmental review process is finalized next year that the route will parallel the BNSF/Amtrak tracks for a reasonable distance, which creates issues with the Federal requirements for independent utility.

Can you get to Bakersfield?  The answer is no.

How far can you get?  The answer is that it depends.  You may get as far as Shafter but you may only get to south Corcoran.

There are several major decisions about the route that have not been made yet, generally involving whether or not to bypass cities or pass through them.

If a decision is made not to build a bypass of Corcoran, the money would only get you to just south of  Corcoran as a very expensive and very long (approximately 12 miles) aerial structure would need to be built through the city.

Alternatively, if the result of the environmental study underway allows trains to pass at grade-level through a wetlands mitigation area outside of Corcoran, the costs will be lower. There are additional alignment decisions in the Allensworth area and the Wasco/Shafter area. If the cheaper options are also chosen in both places, trains could get as far south as Shafter.

The costs being used now are far higher than the costs presented to the Federal government last October in the original application made for stimulus funds and in the budgets used to calculate the $42.6 billion project budget. Even if the Corcoran aerial structure can be avoided, the cost of building tracks from South Fresno to North Bakersfield has gone from $1.639 billion to $3.5 billion (option 2 of those considered at the board meeting earlier this month). If the Corcoran aerial is built, the cost would be $4.3 billion.

For some perspective on how expensive building in the “flatland” is now, consider the following: Last year, the Authority told the Federal government that they could build tracks all the way from south Fresno to north Bakersfield for $1.6 billion. This year, the numbers have changed so dramatically that $1.2 billion gets you from north of  Corcoran to south of Corcoran.

Despite the fact that much more expensive alignment choices have been made throughout the planned route from San Francisco to Anaheim, the Authority has not made any adjustments to its headline project cost figure.