Essential California: The gigantic transit project that hasn’t happened

California’s high-speed rail project under construction in Fresno.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s June 14. I’m Justin Ray.

Last week, the Biden administration restored a $929-million federal grant for the California bullet train project that had been terminated in May 2019 by then-President Trump. The restoration was the result of a settlement from a lawsuit brought by California, claiming the U.S. Department of Transportation acted improperly in taking the money away.

In a statement, Gov. Gavin Newsom called the move “further proof that California and the Biden-Harris administration share a common vision — clean, electrified transportation that will serve generations to come.”

As Ralph Vartabedian in The Times notes, however, the nearly $1 billion returned to the project doesn’t mean it now suddenly has a lot more funding; the state rail authority never removed the money from its budget of forecast revenues.


Vartabedian also reports that Newsom is under pressure to allocate a significant amount of unexpected tax revenue to the project as a signal to federal officials that the state is fully committed. Should that occur, it would mark the first time the state has allocated a substantial amount of general fund revenues to the project. The move could be part of a package along with Biden’s proposed investments into infrastructure.

Back in 2008, voters approved a bond measure to help create the system that was to transport commuters between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes. At the time, it was supposed to cost $33 billion and be operational by 2020. Well, it’s 2021, and we still don’t have it.

A revised business plan for the project estimates that the total cost of building the full system connecting the two major California cities could reach $100 billion, up from an estimated $98 billion a year ago. Meanwhile, the rail authority has projected it will be completed sometime in the mid-2030s. However, a funding gap of $80 billion remains.

The ambitious public transit project has experienced delays, mismanagement issues and budget problems. Here’s what has happened so far this year:

— In January, one of the state’s top bullet train contractors sent a pretty angry letter to high-speed rail officials. “It is beyond comprehension that as of this day, more than two thousand and six hundred calendar days after [official approval to start construction] that the authority has not obtained all of the right of way.”

— In February, a revised business plan was revealed. The first phase of the bullet train — a 171-mile link in the Central Valley — will be reduced to a single track, as its estimated cost increased by $2 billion. The Bakersfield-to-Merced route was previously planned to be two.


— Another costly chapter in the project was revealed in February. In 2014, the contract for a segment located south of Fresno was awarded to the lowest bidder, a Spanish company named Dragados. The company promised $300 million in cost savings by altering the design that the authority had proposed to regulators. Seven years later, these changes have been largely scrapped and have led to more than $800 million in cost overruns.

— The California High-Speed Rail Authority has maintained support with banners proclaiming “5,000 workers and counting.” However, an article posted in May features a closer look into that number, revealing how it may be misleading.

— Later in May, the chief operating officer of the California High-Speed Rail Authority abruptly left his job after an investigation by the agency and an outside law firm. An anonymous letter that sparked the probe claimed Joe Hedges awarded big payments to contractors building the project, overruling employees.

— A June story digs into the unions that have been pushing California to continue pursuing the troubled bullet train. They have had a powerful voice in conversations about resuming construction, despite its constant problems with funding and engineering.

For further reading, check out more of Vartabedian’s reporting.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.


Subscriber Exclusive: The USC Song Girls program and its longtime coach are the subject of a Title IX investigation, but this is not the first time. The Times has learned that five years before the current inquiry into discrimination, harassment and retaliation within the program, there was another investigation. Longtime USC Song Girls coach Lori Nelson, who resigned recently, has denied allegations of harassment. Los Angeles Times

It’s getting hot in here. Many in Los Angeles took note of the major heat wave across the region. It comes during a drought that increases the risk of brush fires. If you’re not a fan of the heat, bad news: There’s more ahead. Los Angeles Times

Sixteen Latinos in Hollywood sound off on the industry’s representation problem. We spoke to actors, writers, directors and executives about the state of Latino representation on-screen and their hopes for the future. Hear from Eva Longoria, Stephanie Beatriz, Shea Serrano, Steven Canals and more. Los Angeles Times

L.A. County Sheriff’s deputy charged with assault, evidence tampering. A Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy has been charged with assault and evidence tampering over an arrest she made in Lancaster two years ago, prosecutors said. Nicole Bell, 27, is accused of deleting video footage from a witness’ cellphone in July 2019. The incident marks at least the sixth time an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy has been charged with a crime since March. Here’s a rundown: Los Angeles Times

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Apple is said to have handed over data. Last month, Apple told Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel to former President Trump, that the Department of Justice subpoenaed the company in February 2018 about an account that belonged to him, two people told the New York Times. It isn’t clear what the feds were trying to obtain. When making the disclosure to McGahn, the Cupertino company also said the government barred the tech company from telling him at the time. New York Times


“I just want everybody to know that he was amazing.” A vigil was held in San Jose for a 7-year-old who authorities say was killed by his mother. “My heart and mind are flooded with grief and pain, and I am living in a nightmare,” Nicholas Husted said of his late son, Liam. “The knowledge that he was taken away forever by someone he trusted is entirely unforgivable.” KTVU

Authorities have arrested a 12-year-old girl on suspicion of setting four fires in the Berkeley hills on Friday. Police said no one was injured in the incidents. “Thanks to the quick action and reporting of neighbors, fires were able to be extinguished and a suspect later apprehended,” police said in a statement. KRON4

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What’s it like inside an ER? This doctor and author shares raw, honest stories. Michele Harper is an ER physician who is the author of “The Beauty in Breaking.” She discussed her bestselling memoir that details her experience working as a Black woman in a profession that is overwhelmingly white and male. Harper joins the Los Angeles Times Book Club June 29 to discuss the book. Los Angeles Times

A mystery may be solved. An environmental technician says that while testing equipment that performs underwater surveys, his team discovered wreckage that may be a plane that crashed in 1965. The workers at Seafloor Systems made the discovery at California’s Folsom Lake, about 25 miles northeast of Sacramento. The body of the pilot was previously recovered, but authorities have not located the aircraft or the three passengers who were also aboard. CNN


California ranks No. 1 in dog bites against postal workers. The U.S. Postal Service released its list of states where most dog bites were reported and, unfortunately, California is No. 1. Five California cities were ranked among the top 25 with the most dog attacks in the U.S.: Los Angeles (third, with 54 attacks), San Diego (tied for 10th, with 35), Sacramento (tied for 16th, with 22), Long Beach (tied for 18th, with 20), and San Francisco (tied for 24th, with 14). USPS

A dying girl, a fateful blessing and the lessons of California’s tragic origin myth. The story of La Cristianita — the Little Christian Girl — has been repeated for ages. It details the 1769 baptism of a dying Native American infant girl by missionaries. It’s hailed as a foundational moment in California’s history. But when the story is told, something important is usually omitted. Los Angeles Times

Two plaques
The replica La Cristianita monument at La Casa Romantica in San Clemente.
(Gustavo Arellano / Los Angeles Times)

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Los Angeles: Sunny, 88. San Diego: Sunny, 76. San Francisco: Cloudy, 66 . San Jose: Cloudy, 75. Fresno: Sunny, 93. Sacramento: Sunny, 85.


This week, two rappers important to the legacy of the West Coast hip-hop scene have birthdays. Tupac was born June 16, 1971 (he would have been 50 this year). Ice Cube was born on June 15, 1969. He turns 52.

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