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California

New bullet train plan paints optimistic picture, but opposition continues to grow

Bullet train
Voters approved a $9-billion bond for the bullet train in 2008 and were told the entire system would be operating this year.
(Associated Press)

Every other year, the California bullet train authority issues a business plan to support its cause, and this year’s 168-page document came out last week with words that are obvious by now:

“Building the nation’s first truly high-speed rail system is certainly not easy,” Chief Executive Brian Kelly said in the first sentence of the report.

Kelly goes on to say it is nevertheless worth the trouble for all the reasons that have been restated over time: It would represent California’s “leadership” in an environmental and economic construct, creating billions of dollars in future growth.

Not many California legislators would differ with either idea, but that’s where their agreement with Kelly starts to disintegrate.

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The 2020 blueprint for building the Los-Angeles-to-San-Francisco bullet train has generated more hesitation and open opposition than any other biennial plan since voters approved a $9-billion bond for the effort in 2008. It reflects growing cost, lengthening schedule and disproportionate benefits of the project in the coming decade.

“Once again, it seems the High-Speed Rail Authority has released in the 2020 draft business plan a proposal for its future that it can’t afford and that won’t deliver what is promised,” said Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Frazier (D-Fairfield), sharply escalating his negative assessment of the project. “Every version of the Business Plan has increased costs and reduced scope and no longer resembles the vision promised in the 2008 ballot measure.”

Frazier was reacting to a plan that would sink all of the state’s remaining money for high-speed rail — about $20.5 billion through 2030 — into a partial operating system running from Burbank to Merced that is supposed to fuel public support for more investment.

The argument against the rail authority plan began in Southern California last year and now includes a broader swath of legislators. The Los Angeles caucus, which includes Assembly members and senators from the county, wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom just before the business plan was issued asking for a more substantive discussion about the project’s future, implicitly rejecting the existing plan.

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After the business plan was issued last Wednesday, more than half a dozen Assembly members from Los Angeles and Orange counties issued statements and signed letters expressing reservations or opposition to the intent of the plan, which would pour all of the remaining funding through 2030 into the Central Valley.

“We’re disappointed that the High-Speed Rail Authority is moving forward with the alternative outlined in the draft 2020 Business Plan,” wrote five key legislators from Los Angeles and Orange counties, led by Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood). “Specifically, we are concerned that the Authority continues to ignore options that will create long-term benefits for the success of high-speed rail, and more importantly, for California riders.”

In an interview Saturday, Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D-Glendale) said there are more skeptical legislators who didn’t sign the letter, including those from Central and Northern California.

Rendon has thrown his weight behind a plan to divert about $5 billion of $20.5 billion that Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to sink into the Central Valley and invest it in passenger rail segments in Southern and Northern California. Those segments would eventually be used for high-speed rail, so it would not be a diversion of money from the project but a reordering of the construction schedule, Rendon has asserted. A Metrolink report last year estimated such an investment would double rail ridership between Anaheim and Los Angeles, relieving congestion on the 5 Freeway.

But the business plan argues that keeping the money in the Central Valley yields a larger ridership increase and greater air quality improvements. Those estimates are not in the main report, but a supporting technical document asserts that ridership would triple in the Central Valley and in connecting routes to the Bay Area from the existing rail service.

If the rail authority wasn’t having so many problems in executing the project it might not be facing so much second-guessing.

The new business plan puts the total future cost of the Los-Angeles-to-San-Francisco system at $80.3 billion, which it asserts is only a $1.3-billion increase. But that jump is only from last summer. The 2018 business plan had a cost of $77.3 billion, making it a $3-billion increase from 2018 and a $16-billion leap from 2016.

When voters approved the rail bond in 2008, they were told the entire system would be operating this year, though the date is now projected at 2033. Construction in the Central Valley bogged down almost as soon as the first contract was issued and remains far slower than needed to meet upcoming deadlines.

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The business plan notes that its construction rate improved, hitting average spending of $46 million per month in the fourth quarter of 2019. But over the next 1,054 days through the end of 2022, the authority needs to be spending at a rate of about $70 million per month to complete the project on time, chief financial officer Brian Annis said Sunday.

“We need to see higher expenditures in the future,” Annis said. “But we are seeing that growth that we need over the last year.”

The project must build 48 structures in Kings County, for example, but has started only 12 of them, according to its most recent progress report. Getting the construction rate up faces many challenges, including hundreds of land parcels that still have not been acquired along the route.

“Despite efforts by myself and some of my colleagues, the Authority continues to propose electrifying a segment of a train line in the Central Valley that will add billions of dollars to the project and provide little or no benefit,” Frazier said.

He called for an “honest evaluation” that the rail authority has never provided. “Every iteration of the business plan comes with new promises without results.”


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