California

‘Shocking’ cut to California’s troubled high-speed rail project solves some problems and creates others

la-1550017057-i4888zruun-snap-image
Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday that the state can complete the first leg in the Central Valley, but extending the rail line to Southern California and the Bay Area would cost too much and take too long.
(Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement that he intends to scale back California’s $77-billion bullet train project stunned many officials close to the project while also raising many questions about what it actually means.

“It is shocking,” said a senior executive at a major engineering firm in California who has worked on the bullet train project and asked not to be identified. “I didn’t think he was that bold.”

Newsom said Wednesday that while the state has the capacity to complete the first leg in the Central Valley, extending the rail line to Southern California and the Bay Area would “cost too much and, respectfully, take too long.”

His words left much room for interpretation, and some experts said there remains much uncertainty about the future scope, direction and funding of the mega-project.

FULL COVERAGE: California’s troubled bullet train »

The governor’s tone, acknowledging the lack of a feasible plan and a realistic funding strategy, contrasts sharply with Gov. Jerry Brown, who never acknowledged any serious roadblocks to his vision, and accepted the reassurances over the last six years by the rail authority that it was already fixing all of its problems.

The single overt act of replacing high speed rail authority chairman Dan Richard, who had overseen the project for Brown, is also seen as a move toward more accountability in addressing problems facing the $77 billion project, the nation’s largest infrastructure project.

la-1550025198-glw0khdmsh-snap-image
 
(Ellis Simani / Los Angeles Times)

But others took a more nuanced view of Newsom’s exact words, saying that his plan differs in only a few details from Gov. Jerry Brown’s final plan. Newsom would still build the Central Valley rail section, continue to finalize all of the environmental documents for the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco system and move ahead with transit funding agreements in the Bay Area and Southern California.

The only concrete near-term item he is dropping is a commitment to electrify commuter train service from Gilroy to San Jose, which the state had wanted to pursue with any surplus funds left from the Central Valley.

“It looks like he kicked the can down the road,” said Paul Dyson, president of the Rail Passengers Association of California. “He hasn’t stopped anything that was planned to be done. It will go on maybe until money runs out. It isn’t a bold step in one direction or another.”

Added Elizabeth Alexis, a cofounder of the Bay Area watchdog group CARRD: “The project is no more dead than it was yesterday. The nail was already in the coffin a long time ago.”

Alexis said the vague timetable for completing the Central Valley construction gives Newsom lots of time to maneuver if the nation’s political landscape changes and new funding comes out of Washington. Notably, Newsom said he would push for additional federal funding and private investments, but did not mention additional state funding in his speech.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he intends to scale back the high-speed rail.

In a statement, High-Speed Rail Authority Chief Executive Brian Kelly said the agency is “eager” to meet the challenge of a bullet train in the Central Valley. Kelly noted the importance of Newsom’s commitment to complete environmental reviews and to meet the commitments to make so called bookend investments.

Newsom’s plan takes some of the project’s risks off the table, but creates new ones.

The governor committed to completing the environmental reviews for the entire Anaheim-to-San Francisco route, citing the requirements of a grant agreement by the Federal Railroad Administration.

If the state does finalize those reviews, it would open the window to environmental lawsuits. So far, the rail authority has finalized only two environmental documents for the Central Valley and has faced about a dozen lawsuits that have dragged on for years. In Los Angeles, the state might see a litigation explosion. The environmental documents also specify an exact route for the rail line, meaning the land value for thousands of homeowners and businesses would be put under a cloud, even though the state would have no plan to build the system.

The other major risk the state faces is running out of money, even with the truncated project. The state can count on about $18 billion in funding from bonds, grants and greenhouse-gas fees.

The state’s 2018 business plan calls for building 119 miles of rail from Madera to Wasco for $10.6 billion, but Newsom said he wants the rail line to run from Merced to Bakersfield. The Bakersfield extension alone would add more than $2 billion and the Merced extension another $2 billion. Those two additions alone take the project to $15 billion.

The state also has committed to paying more than $700 million to electrify the Caltrain commuter line from San Jose to San Francisco, $500 million to modernize Los Angeles Union Station and other local grants for station planning and community development.

To start a bullet train service, the state would have to build a massive heavy maintenance facility in the Central Valley, buy electrically powered trains, pay for electrical transmission lines in some sections where the power is in short supply and construct train stations.

“Absolutely, they could run out of money,” said William Grindley, a rail opponent and a retired World Bank executive in the Bay Area who has written a series of analyses of the challenges facing the project.

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @rvartabedian