California's bullet train is 11 years behind schedule. Lawmakers want to know when L.A. will benefit from it

A worker ties rebar inside a column at the Cedar Viaduct in February. (California High-Speed Rail)

Southern California Democrats have said few, if any, critical words about the state rail authority’s decision in 2016 to drop Los Angeles as the starting point of the first segment of the statewide bullet train.

Rail officials announced at the time that they would instead invest the vast majority of available money to begin building from the Central Valley to the Bay Area.

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Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) broached the topic at a House rail subcommittee hearing on Thursday, asking state rail officials and other witnesses how he can justify the project to his constituents.

“What do I tell people in Los Angeles,” said Lowenthal, the former chairman of the state Senate transportation committee. “We talk about the [rail’s benefits] to Silicon Valley and the Central Valley, but … when are we going to see things going on in Los Angeles? We are the population center.”

Under the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s plans, it is providing more than $700 million to install an electrical power system for the Bay Area’s Caltrain commuter system and another $400 million for a downtown San Francisco station, along with other much bigger investments that will flow through Santa Clara County.

The investments dwarf the spending so far in Southern California.

Brian Kelly, chief executive of the rail authority, told Lowenthal that his agency has funded improvements of a rail grade crossing south of Los Angeles and updates to the track system in Union Station.

The grade crossing investment is $77 million and so far the rail authority has committed to $19 million for Union Station, though more will be added later. It has an agreement to ultimately invest $500 million in Southern California, but the actual commitments have lagged.

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Kelly took over leadership of the project in February and has been working to stabilize it after years of schedule delays and cost increases. The $77 billion project has more than doubled in cost and is more than 11 years behind schedule.

The hearing was called by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), chairman of the House rail subcommittee and an early supporter of the project as a state senator.

In opening remarks at the Sacramento hearing, Denham said the project was based on “confusing business plans that are not grounded in reality” and that it was becoming “a poster child for mismanagement.”

Denham noted that in 2008, the $33 billion price tag included track that would reach from Sacramento to San Diego by 2020, whereas now the project aims to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles by 2033. What voters approved in 2008 “is unrecognizable today,” he said.

Democrats, who hold leadership positions in the state Senate and Assembly, have generally accepted the reasoning behind putting the Bay Area first: It would be unaffordable with existing funding to build rail through mountainous Southern California.

But that is the result of a decision to start construction in the Central Valley, rather than starting the project from each end and building toward the center, Lowenthal said. If it had started in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, it would have demonstrated the greatest immediate benefits to the largest number of voters.

“These were decisions that were made early on that we are now paying the price for,” Lowenthal said. “I wish we had done it differently, but this is what we have.

“This should not be the Northern California high-speed rail. The bond was passed by all the people, and the majority of people are in Southern California. We might not be first in line, but we have to have more than what we have now. The south is not going to see anything in my lifetime.”

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Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments, raised similar concerns in an interview earlier this year. He said Southern California has received only $15 million so far.

“I hope the vision of connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco is achieved, because anything less is not a success,” Ikhrata said. “If this doesn't end up connecting the two points, then it is a waste of time and a waste of money.”

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