The start of construction on California's bullet train, one of the nation's largest "shovel ready" public work projects that was awarded stimulus funding three years ago by the Obama administration, is slipping past already-delayed target dates, interviews show.
In early 2012, state officials said construction would begin that year. Early this year, officials adjusted their sights, saying they would begin building the massive new transportation network in the spring, later announcing the groundbreaking would take place in July.
Now, it appears that serious construction may not begin this year, and could be delayed into 2014.
Factors contributing to the sluggish start include delays in getting a construction company under contract and lack of key federal permits.
Postponing construction work raises the risk of future cost increases and suggests that state officials underestimated the challenges of the $68-billion project, according to construction experts.
"It is not as shovel-ready as they thought it was," said Bill Ibbs, a civil engineering professor at UC Berkeley who consults on major construction projects, including high-speed rail, around the world. "The construction industry is starting to heat up, and, as it does, it is harder to get qualified people, and material costs increase."
Ibbs and others say a one-year schedule slippage before construction starts would be worrisome. The delays are coming after repeated warnings from state watchdog agencies that the bullet train agency is understaffed and lacks the resources required to manage such a complex project. The state high-speed-rail board and Chairman Dan Richard have made hiring staff to fill long-standing vacancies a priority. But the agency also has had to contend with turnover in the management ranks.
Ron Tutor, chief executive of Tutor Perini, the firm chosen in June to build the first phase of the project stretching north from Fresno, said his firm is months from beginning substantial construction because it has considerable engineering and design work to complete. And, as of Friday, Tutor's firm, which is supposed to build the initial 29 miles of the system by 2017 for $985 million, was still awaiting a formal contract from the state.
"The way I see it, the earliest any real construction can start, other than demolition or clearing, is after the first of the year," Tutor said in an interview. "We will have to complete design work and get permits."
The state needs hundreds of parcels of land to build the first 130 miles of rail bed from Madera to Bakersfield by 2017. So far, it has made 106 offers to buy land and has "taken possession" of one parcel, according to a spokeswoman for the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Many Central Valley landowners oppose the project and are expected by real estate experts to fight any attempt to seize their farms, businesses or homes.
At this point, Tutor said, the lack of land is "academic" because of the engineering work that remains to be done. The state is using a "design build" process, in which selected companies will be responsible for both designing and building various sections of the system.
Tutor said he could begin some demolition sooner than next year but is concerned about mobilizing to start work and then having to stop until design of system structures catches up. "That doesn't really accomplish a great deal, if we don't get the engineering completed," he added.
Under federal agreements, the state must spend all of the Obama administration stimulus funding and a matching amount of state funds by October 2017— about $5 billion of the $6 billion total for the first phase through the Central Valley.
The authority did not respond to questions about the latest delays. A spokeswoman said Tutor Perini's contract "commits both parties to deliver the project on schedule, which meets the deadline of 2017."
William Grindley, a former executive at the World Bank and a critic of the project, said one risk of delays is that the U.S. economy will strengthen significantly next year and drive up construction costs. The agency plans to issue at least three more contracts to complete 130 miles of the system in the Central Valley by the federal deadline.
If construction starts Jan. 1, 2014, the federal deadline would require spending roughly $3.75 million per day, including weekends and holidays — one of the fastest rates of spending on a major construction project in U.S. history.
Two major freight railroads, Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, have not yet reached agreement that would allow the state to build structures near or over their rights of way. A Union Pacific spokesman said a deal is still under discussion.
A key ruling also is pending on a lawsuit that contends the project violates the terms of the 2008 voter-approved ballot measure that allocated $9 billion for the project. A decision in Sacramento Superior Court is expected by the end of the month.
There has also been limited progress in getting key federal approvals for the project, including two permits by the Army Corps of Engineers to cross waterways along the route from Merced to Fresno.
One of the permits would allow the state to build a crossing over the Fresno River. It requires completion of an analysis of how the bridge might affect the river's flow. The analysis is awaiting a detailed bridge design by Tutor's firm. Ryan Larson, a corps official in Sacramento, said once the design is submitted, it will take four to six months to examine the permit request.
The state also needs a permit allowing various construction-related intrusions into rivers and waterways along the route from Merced to Fresno. But no action can occur on that request until the rail authority completes a supplemental environmental study, gets approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which assesses effects on endangered species and submits a plan to offset damage to wetlands along the route, said Kate Dadey, the lead regulator on the project with the corps.
"Until we have it in our hands, we cannot move forward on a permit," she said.
The rail authority can start building away from rivers and wetlands before obtaining a permit, Dadey said. But that would be "at their own risk," she said, adding that projects typically do not proceed without such permits in hand.
The bullet train "is an extremely complicated project," she said. "There is still a fair amount of actions that have to occur before groundbreaking."